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The People in Gray

by Paul Rapp on March 22, 2012

A number of folks have pointed me to reports that Internet companies are about to start some heavy-duty spying on their customers. That’s kind of right, and if you had nothing better last summer than to pay attention to this column, you already know all about it (Six Strikes and You’re, Well, Um . . ., July 13, 2011).

What this is about is a ludicrous and dangerous attempt by Big Media to reign in what it likes to call “piracy,” or what the rest of us like to call downloading things off of the Internet. It’s a “voluntary” initiative from an unholy alliance of the large cable companies, the RIAA, the MPAA, and the White House (which reportedly “brokered” the deal). It’s my understanding that the cable companies didn’t want to do it, but caved under threats of lawsuits from the RIAA and MPAA (which would have been completely bogus but expensive and potentially embarrassing). I suspect that the White House’s “brokering” of the agreement included a thinly veiled threat of new legislation or Department of Justice “inquiries” if the cable companies didn’t play along. Unfortunately, “playing along” meant the cable companies had to sell out their customers’ privacy and freedom to do what they pleased online.

As I described last July, it’s not as bad as it could have been, but it’s still bad. What is supposed to happen is this: When a cable company is informed by RIAA or MPAA investigators that a customer appears to be downloading infringing stuff, the cable company must lean on the customer to stop. There are six levels of warnings, meaning that you’ll have to get “caught” six times before anything really seriously bad happens, like your service slows down or is interrupted, or you have to attend a hideous copyright reeducation program in order to keep your Internet.

It’s all ludicrous and cumbersome and you can be sure this “voluntary” program will be used as a reason why your broadband rates will go up by the end of the year. It involves being assumed guilty of something without any kind of real process; if you want to challenge a warning or sanction, you’ll have to pay your cable company something like $35 for the privilege of doing so, and even then your rights will be limited. And it doesn’t address the basic structural problems like the liability of Wi-Fi networks where anybody can jack into the web, or fair use of copyrighted materials, or the most basic issue of a customer who makes squeaky-clean but extremely heavy use of the Internet.

It will be interesting to see what the public and Internet company tolerance will be for this nonsense in the post-SOPA era. We’ll find out, if not when the notices start flying to customers, then when RIAA /MPAA overplays their hand and tries to crush the wrong person. Because you know they will.

Moving on. The Boston Globe this week reported one of the more disgusting 1-percent-related things I’ve seen: a new trend of employers demanding full password access to an employee’s (or job applicant’s) Facebook page. Not just the stuff you’ve allowed the public to see, but everything. Every post, picture, message, note. . . . As one attorney said in the article, it’s like asking for the keys to your house. Or for heavy FB users like me, it’s like asking to inhabit my brain.

For a number of years, employers have routinely done extensive Internet searches of job applicants to see if there’s anything of concern in an applicant’s past. Of course, this is perfectly fine—heck, I do that when someone I don’t know leaves a message for me to call them back. And this is why we tell our kids not to post anything online they wouldn’t want Grandma to see, because that pic of you toking on a fat spliffy while holding up a half-empty bottle of Captain Morgan’s with no shirt on and “dickface” written in lipstick across your forehead . . . well, that could become part of your permanent record, a record that will follow you for the rest of your life. For my generation, that kind of warning was bullshit and everybody knew it. With the Internet, it’s horrifyingly real.

But an employer demanding access to your Facebook page? Some folks were crying “Orwell,” but that’s not it. It’s private employers who are demanding this stuff. Why? Well, for much the same reason as why a dog licks its privates. These days, with 10-plus-percent unemployment, it’s not unusual for there to be 50 or more applicants for one job, and employers are gonna abuse their employees in ways that were inconceivable five years ago. You’ve got a hungry family, a sick kid, crushing debt? Screw your privacy, right?

Occupy, comrades.

 

Paul Rapp is an art & entertainment attorney in Housatonic, Mass., where everyone thinks he’s some kind of fancy expat from the law firms of New York City, when in fact he’s just a nudnik who moved across the border from Albany.