Commentary

Germany Protects Right to Be Stupid on Facebook

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Ah, Germany -- that orderly Central European Utopia which carefully protects rights Americans didn't even know existed. For example, a right to privacy in public.

That seems to be the basic idea behind a new German law which forbids employers from checking out the online social profiles of prospective job candidates. According to Der Spiegel, Germany's authoritative newsweekly, the German legislature (Bundestag) is set to "radically restrict the information bosses can legally collect" about job applicants from the Internet, including popular social networks like Facebook.

Exemptions include networks with a professional, career-oriented focus like LinkedIn, as well as any information that's "generally available on the Internet" -- meaning, something that can be found easily with search engines like Google or on a personal Web site.

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Like so many idealistic policies promulgated by forward-thinking Europeans, this law seems, well, ludicrously unenforceable. I can't really imagine how applicants or law enforcement officials might determine whether employers have looked at restricted information. Especially because they can create fake profiles or use proxies to snoop around on social networks. And what about cases where the employer and applicant happen to be friends (connected through a social network) before they develop a professional relationship?

Setting aside the issues of practicality, this rule will probably strike Americans as strange for a couple reasons. Although most social networks elect to offer a range of "privacy" options, under U.S. law anyone who chooses to share personal information online assumes responsibility for any consequences this entails. Similarly, U.S. labor laws place far fewer restrictions on employers than in Europe, where legislatures have set up abundant (some say excessive) protections for workers. And capitalist Americans just generally tend to be less forgiving of slip-ups in the professional realm: If you are dumb enough to post incriminating pictures online, the thinking goes, you probably deserve to get canned, or never hired in the first place.

But Germans have their reasons to be worried about nosy authority figures snooping in their business (which apparently extends to looking at their Facebook profiles) -- a deep-seated suspicion resulting from the country's historical experience, which is also reflected in the controversy over Google's Street View taking pictures of people's houses.

5 comments about "Germany Protects Right to Be Stupid on Facebook".
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  1. Rich Nadworny, September 7, 2010 at 1:41 p.m.

    Very good American post Eric. But, you know that it IS actually illegal in the U.S. to deny someone employment based on personal activity that a prospective employer sees on Facebook. Check out Mashable's article on this: http://mashable.com/2010/09/05/social-media-job-recruiting/

    What's even more surprising, though, is that our culture of personal freedoms and embracing our libertarian strains actually gives the oligarchs MORE power over individuals than does the centralist-focused governments of Western Europe. How do you explain that?

  2. Christina Anon from Some Company, September 7, 2010 at 3:06 p.m.

    Agreed, a thoroughly American post.

    Facebook and the EU have had long-standing tensions over privacy (just google "facebook privacy EU" and read through the results). Why wouldn't Germany legislate changes to counter what it considers the inadequate protections of a company led by a smug ceo with adolescent "get away with whatever I want" attitudes? And let's not pretend that Facebook has demonstrated itself to be a champion protector of people's private data--it has withstood, over and over again, the backlash of criticism from its own "capitalist american" countrymen, after all; that mistrust is not at all limited to "that orderly Central European Utopia which carefully protects rights Americans didn't even know existed," and doesn't exist without reason.

    In addition to ignoring facts easily available, this post's title also betrays the attempt to garner more interested readers by poo-pooing Germany's action out of context. So...did it succeed? Two comments so far, both implying that more thought would've been nice to support what's being said.

    Try harder next time.

  3. John Jainschigg from World2Worlds, Inc., September 7, 2010 at 4:59 p.m.

    I actually think that Erik's mistake, here (if mistake was made) was in not more clearly semaphoring his own position on this matter. I suspect he's trying to show how measured and sensible this German legislation is, vs. the much-more-polarized and absolutist American approach -- but the ironic tone may have obscured his real intention.

    In any case, he reports accurately on the problem the Germans are trying to address, which is that technology has encouraged people to make their non-work lives increasingly visible online (and to some extent, made it impossible for people to control how they're represented online by others -- e.g., in photos posted and captioned by third parties, etc.); and that a fair society should, in acknowledgment of the utility of social media, create what amount to artificial protections, limiting use of these media by institutions in the process of making certain kinds of formal judgments with deep economic and professional repercussions.

    As Rich points out, it's already illegal in America to deny employment based on many categories of personal information (e.g., race, marital status, etc.), and the Mashable article points up the heartening fact that HR professionals and labor lawyers are sensitive to the ethics, as well as the potential for adverse litigation around this issue when companies set to out pry. Though I believe it's the category of information that's relevant here, not the source of the information. Indeed, it arguably makes sense to proceed from the assumption that "certain kinds of personal information should be held formally irrelevant to hiring," rather than to focus on media at all.

  4. Mark Laudi from Hong Bao Media (Holdings) Pte Ltd, September 7, 2010 at 10:57 p.m.

    I can't say I have read the story in Der Spiegel, but on face value I'd like to offer an alternative view.

    Despite my German descent and my distain for Americans who think their country is the centre of the universe, I have to say I agree with Erik.

    It's not only impractical to prove whether or not you checked out a job candidate's Facebook page before the interview. But even if you did, and decide against hiring that person, chances are you'll come up with other reasons not to hire them. This law, and the one Rich Nadworny said exists in the US, are unenforcible.

    Imagine you own a small company. You need to hire staff, but you don't have budget for an HR department which does the hiring for you.

    You place an ad in the paper, or on one of the job search sites.

    Sure, you'll get a bunch of CVs from eager applicants. But clearly, all CVs make the owner sound like the perfect candidate.

    The referees, whose names and numbers are quoted in the CVs, are obviously also only going to say good things about the candidate - otherwise the candidate wouldn't have nominated them as referees!

    So, a Google search or - yes, a look at Facebook - is valuable, and sometimes critical, to find out whether that perfect prospective employee has a few proverbial skeletons in the closet.

    At worst, they will damage your brand and drag your name through the media once their "private" activities are publicised in the press. Journalists aren't restricted from accessing Facebook profiles.

    Then you have to take the reactive decision on whether to fire them, and questions will be asked why you didn't do your due diligence before you hired them.

    Also don't forget: it cuts both ways! Many candidates google their prospective employers before they turn up for an interview, and check out their direct supervisor's Facebook page before they sign on! Should employees be prevented from doing that, too?

    Please. Let's bring back common sense.

    As Erik said: if you don't want people to know private stuff about you, lock your Facebook profile or Twitter feed, or don't put it on the internet in the first place.

  5. Oliver t. Hellriegel from digi:Marketing, September 8, 2010 at 4:34 a.m.

    Erik, with all due respect, I believe you are missing the greater picture here...

    It's not about "Central European Utopia which carefully protects rights Americans didn't even know existed". It's about companies like Facebook, pretending private data is theirs once you have opened an account. Private data belongs to the person and not to a company and each person should be able to control who will see and use the data.

    And the Google StreetView issue is completely different - it's not about people having an account and publishing photographs. It's about a company driving through cities, taking photographs and publish them. Don't you think everybody should have the right to say "NO"? You can say "no" to your friend who wants to publish a photo of you being drunk at the latest party, can't you?

    Just to get this right: I believe in the great opportunities we have through Social Media, thus I'm using them extensively. And I also think that everyone has a responsibility for information uploaded to the net, or as you say: "If you are dumb enough to post incriminating pictures online, the thinking goes, you probably deserve to get canned, or never hired in the first place". AND: I do not agree with all actions taken by the EU oder German government when it comes to legislation...

    Nevertheless I would like to encourage people to think about privacy, what it means to them and how we can make sure that we have some sort of fraud prevention in place.

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