The Social Contract of Online Life

by sarahtwonames

Social contract: NOUN “An implicit agreement among the members of a society to cooperate for social benefits, for example by sacrificing some individual freedom for state protection.” Definition from Oxford Dicitonaries.

This one has been bothering me since way before Squared. I think it links to the fact that generally I don’t trust people has a whole. Too many wars, capitalism, the existence of X Factor. I could go on.

So what do I mean by “social contract” when it comes to the digisphere? Social media is probably the most obvious example. Bird-land, Fiendface et al rely on good behaviour and cooperation on the part of all of their users to function. We give tons of details away on these platforms everyday. And I’m not just talking about name, age, location, and profile picture (the Big Four). We freely type away the very minutiae of our lives. So much so, that even if we don’t publicise the Big Four, we are identifiable by our connections and the details we give away without thinking. If someone really wanted to, they could find you. Without blackhatting it.

Now do you see what I mean?

We feel this social contract most keenly when it is violated. Think trolls. One deliberately incendiary comment about someone’s appearance in a YouTube video, and the comments page is permanently paralysed by people rising to the troll, or more trolls flocking to the scene. In one fell comment YouTube’s intended purpose is subverted and any mutual benefit is flushed right down the binary toilet.

It can also be argued that employers viewing prospective employees’ social media profiles and making decisions to hire based on them is a violation. Whilst posting details into the digital public sphere does grant some kind of access to your personal life to strangers, it doesn’t invite anyone to view the profile with employment in mind, unless it is explicitly expected. The unexpected judgement from an employer violates the principle of mutual benefit and cooperation in the idea of the social contract. The employer is using that social media profile to their advantage.

This kind of use of social media also goes against good old fashioned common sense; our work selves are not our private selves.

Social contracts also run into some delightful shades of moral grey when it comes to posting pictures. Between adults it’s fine; if you both have a social media presence, you are already participants in the social contract and consent is not an issue. You will share photos of each other for mutual benefit. Laughing at each others ridiculous poses in the same pair of Elton John-style sunglasses IS a mutual benefit.

When it come to parents posting pictures of their children, consent is a HUGE issue. The children have yet to choose whether they wish to have an online presence, whether they wish to enter into this digital social contract. One can argue that an online presence is an inevitability nowadays, so parents are making the same choice that their children will eventually make. However an online presence is neither expected or mandatory, there is no inevitability about it.

And with morality issues we stray nicely into PRISM. You saw that one coming didn’t you? Look at the end of the definition of social contract again. Whilst the NSA and friends did pee all over data protection laws like a motherhubbard, things start to look a little different when you consider the social contract. It doesn’t change that fact that consent is sexy.

It also doesn’t change the fact that the NSA broke the social contract in another way. Our favourite security service has been systematically building in weak points (or “backdoors”) into encryption software used to protect us, the public, online. To quote Bruce Schneier, an encryption specialist and fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society in a Guardian article:

“Cryptography forms the basis for trust online. By deliberately undermining online security in a short-sighted effort to eavesdrop, the NSA is undermining the very fabric of the internet.”

These backdoors make it possible for anyone with the correct know how to get in where they don’t belong.

Does the digital social contract still exist? Is it still safeguarding us?  I think the actions of Edward Snowdon prove that it is alive and well. I, for one, will still continue about tweeting about complete and utter nonsense.

Illegitimi non carborundum.