‘Manners cost nothing’

By skepticlawyer

…My mother used to say, when she reminded my siblings and me to keep still tongues in our heads.

As a general rule, it is a bit discomforting to reach one’s mid-thirties and discover that one’s dear old ma was right more often than not, but there it is.

I’ve been put in mind of my mother’s injunction (always delivered with eyebrow arched, and often over the rim of a teacup) by various recent events: Alan Jones undone by someone recording an ill-mannered comment and then broadcasting it, the sacking of Reddit ‘character’ Violentacrez from his job once Gawker disclosed his identity, the prosecution of Matthew Woods (here in the UK) for tasteless and (arguably) paedophilic comments about murdered schoolgirl April Jones. There are legions of similar cases, and my purpose here isn’t to survey all or even most of them. What I want to do instead is focus on some quite profound social implications.

An escalation

Those three stories represent an escalation, which is why I selected them. At least initially, Alan Jones was brought down in a very conventional way: a journalist recorded Jones’s words, and then disclosed them through a newspaper. The journalist used a smartphone, of course, but in days gone by journalists routinely hid dictaphones in handbags and coat pockets. This much is not new. However, after the journalist did his conventional work, social media took over, turning a weak weapon (the boycott) into one of staggering power.

In days gone by, only very powerful trade unions or environmental organisations could make a decent fist of secondary boycotts, and then only sometimes, typically where they commanded strategic choke points (the docks, say). Now, social media allows individuals to turn the weak primary boycott of yore (‘No Norwegian Tuna!’) into a successful secondary boycott through sheer weight of numbers and ability to communicate their message far and wide. The relationship between what the Teamsters or the BLF used to do with picket lines and what Facebook group ‘Destroy the Joint’ did to Alan Jones’s advertising revenue is tenuous at best–but the effect is remarkably similar. If Jones can’t reclaim his advertisers, then he may be finished or, in the alternative, he may have to change his style of presentation. Hold that last thought.

Violentacrez (Michael Brutsch) relied on both his tech savvy and his friends in the Reddit community to keep his identity a secret, despite the fact that–like many Americans–he was employed under an ‘at will’ contract with his and his disabled wife’s health insurance tied to that job. Eventually, he pissed off enough people to mean that he was ‘outed’ and his online activities disclosed. Within 24 hours, he was sacked. In Britain, he may have been able to raise an unfair dismissal claim, but not in the US, where there are very few protections for employees. If Brutsch wants to work again, he will almost certainly have to be very pleasant and amenable towards anyone with whom he comes in contact, both online and off. Once again, hold that last thought.

Matthew Woods made disgusting and arguably paedophilic comments about April Jones on Facebook, where–as is always the case–they were preserved in digital aspic. He was then prosecuted under s127 of the Communications Act 2003, which reads:

Improper use of public electronic communications network

(1)A person is guilty of an offence if he—

(a)sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character; or

(b)causes any such message or matter to be so sent.

(2)A person is guilty of an offence if, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another, he—

(a)sends by means of a public electronic communications network, a message that he knows to be false,

(b)causes such a message to be sent; or

(c)persistently makes use of a public electronic communications network.

(3)A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable, on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, or to both.

(4)Subsections (1) and (2) do not apply to anything done in the course of providing a programme service (within the meaning of the Broadcasting Act 1990 (c. 42)).

His conviction is a summary one, and will be ‘spent’ quickly, but he will probably have to be very careful to be nice to people if he wants to work, at least in the short term. Ironically, he is probably in a better position long term than Brutsch: many British employers have a sense that once someone has repaid his debt to society, then he should be given a second chance, especially if the person in question is young (under 25, say), as is Woods.

It is ironic, I think, that the country with better free speech protections (the USA) will make life harder for Brutsch than the country (the UK) that prosecutes offensive speech, which has sent Woods to gaol. Again, hold that thought.

A new (old) way of living in the world

In the distant past, people lived in small communities for the most part and everyone knew everyone else’s business (‘whose boots were under whom’s bed’, as my mother used to say). Of course, certain societies could produce partial exceptions to this rule: the great cities of the Roman Empire or Ming China were large enough to allow anonymity, and there is fairly good demographic evidence that 40% of the population of Roman Italy lived in urban centres during the first two centuries of our era. For a pre-industrial society, this is staggeringly high, and perhaps accounts for the ‘lifestyle diversity’ of the Roman world. People could move away from their youthful cockups and disappear into the city, or seek out other people who wished to live ‘alternative lifestyles’. The pacifist, vegetarian Pythagoreans are a classic example (they lived in communes), but so was ancient Alexandria’s thriving LGBT community, which Lorenzo documents beautifully here.

This anonymity and its locus in great cities intensified as the Industrial Revolution gathered steam, and for the last 200 years or so the freedom with which we choose our associations, our residences, and our lifestyles has become a staple of the world that the free market has made:

Steven Horwitz will argue that the enhanced freedom with respect to family choices that has characterised the modern family and is celebrated by those on the political left, is largely a product of the economic system, market capitalism, which they often reject. At the same time, those on the right who are troubled by these changes in the family, including the demand for same-sex marriage, need to realise that such cultural changes are an inevitable by-product of the economic freedom they claim to celebrate. Steven will argue it is capitalism that is the main driver of the evolution of the western family and the wider array of family structures, which characterises the 21st century, representing an increased cultural freedom brought on by the freedom to engage in capitalist acts between consenting adults and the wealth it brings in its wake.

At some point in between the great cities of antiquity and the Industrial Revolution, however, we have forgotten how precious is widespread anonymity, and how rare it is in the broad sweep of human history. We have forgotten the scold’s bridle and the stocks, both of which were used (for the most part) to punish speech infractions, to make people ‘nice’, to force them to ‘mind their manners’. We are horrified, of course, with the distance provided by modernity, but in small communities where an inability to play well with others could have extraordinarily bloody consequences, the reasons for their existence are obvious.

Even the Romans–less inclined to punish for speech infractions than later societies–had the legal status known as ‘infamia’, which was a court order to the effect that a given individual had no reputation to defend. It still exists in attenuated form in the modern law of tort and delict, and is why Geoff Clark, for example, brought suit against Andrew Bolt under s 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act and not in defamation, as Legal Eagle points out:

As I’ve mentioned in my previous posts, there are a number of reasons why the plaintiffs would not have wanted to pursue individual defamation claims. In addition, the collective nature of the action is important. There is strength in numbers, and it was clearly advantageous for some of the plaintiffs with weaker claims to be in a group with stronger claims. I can’t imagine Geoff Clark would have gotten very far with defamation on his own, for example. Even if Bolt’s columns had been defamatory and there had been no available defence, I can’t help thinking of the case of Grobbelaar v News Group Newspapers Ltd [2002] UKHL 40, [2002] 1 WLR 3024, where the former Liverpool FC goalie sued The Sun for libel. (I always pronounce Grobbelaar’s name in my head with a Skouser accent, incidentally). Grobbelaar was intially awarded £85,000, but on appeal, the House of Lords slashed his award to £1 (the lowest coin in the realm) and ordered him to pay The Sun’s costs, estimated at £500,000. This kind of redress is sometimes described as “contemptuous damages” – not just nominal, they are downright contemptuous of the plaintiff.

Lord Bingham’s observations in that case are so similar to the way Roman courts framed infamia rulings that it is worth quoting them here, rather than digging up something from Ulpian or Gaius. The fact that the ruling involves a sportsman (as it so often did in the Roman world) is salutary:

The tort of defamation protects those whose reputations have been unlawfully injured. It affords little or no protection to those who have, or deserve to have, no reputation deserving of legal protection. Until 9 November 1994 when the newspaper published its first articles about him, the appellant’s public reputation was unblemished. But he had in fact acted in a way in which no decent or honest footballer would act and in a way which could, if not exposed and stamped on, undermine the integrity of a game which earns the loyalty and support of millions. Even if the newspaper had published no more than what, on my interpretation of the jury’s verdict, it was entitled to have published, the appellant would have been shown to have acted in a way which any right-thinking person would unequivocally condemn. It would be an affront to justice if a court of law were to award substantial damages to a man shown to have acted in such flagrant breach of his legal and moral obligations.

Infamia in the Roman world did not mean gaol time–as it has for Matthew Woods in the modern United Kingdom. It did mean being fired from one’s job, an inability to give evidence in court, a huge loss of social standing, and sometimes a steep fine (if injurious speech had been directed at a named individual). Dissing the military often attracted infamia, something that should resonate for Azhar Ahmed as he completes his community order:

A man who posted an offensive Facebook message following the deaths of six British soldiers has been given a community order.

Azhar Ahmed, 20, of Fir Avenue, Ravensthorpe, West Yorkshire, was found guilty in September of sending a grossly offensive communication. He said he did not think the message, which said “all soldiers should die and go to hell”, was offensive.

Ahmed was also fined £300 at Huddersfield Magistrates’ Court. He will have to do 240 hours of community service over a two-year period.

Ahmed was charged after the mother of one of the soldiers read the comments and was so upset she called the police.

Although Roman jurists decried the extra-legality of the practice, it was also possible for an individual to be considered infamis within his or her own community without a court order; his or her speech and habits would sometimes be policed by local worthies (often town councillors). The only solution, as Gaius observed at one point, was to move away when it became unbearable.

Into, one presumes, the nearest large, anonymous city.

Roman infamia, then, was very close to what has been done to Michael Brutsch. Unable to control his tongue, society has controlled it for him. He is without a job, and in a manner redolent of the Roman tendency to allow an infamis individual’s family to crash and burn with him, his disabled wife will also suffer. This, of course, is a means of preserving social order, and resonates with some of the observations Lorenzo makes about Chinese society.

Preserved for all time

What makes the modern version of infamia different from the Roman version is the fact that there is no escape: as Malcolm Turnbull points out in his Deakin lecture, the Internet never forgets, even if we may be inclined to. It is also ubiquitous. Persons declared infames in modern terms cannot take Gaius’ advice and simply run away:

So now as it is so cheap and effortless to remember and we live more and more of our lives online, how can we forget? For millions of years the frailty of human memory has deleted recollections, but the digital brain that is the Internet never forgets.

You had forgotten being drunk and stupid at a party at university–so had everyone else by the way. But someone took some pictures, put them on Facebook, tagged you and now years later they are turned up in a search by your would-be employer.

Millions of people today converse with their friends online, on Facebook or similar sites, by email, by text message. They are creating a transcript of their lives. So how can they forget the cruel slights of the year before last – the human brain defaults to delete, the digital brain defaults to remember, forever.

How can we forgive, if we cannot forget?

And it is not just information we, or our friends posted, that can come back to haunt us.

Viktor Mayer Schonberger in his book Delete gives the example of a woman who while a teenager had broken the law and gone to prison. Once released, she got her act together, moved to a different city, found a job, got married, had some kids and established her happy family with her past far behind her. Or so she thought until one day one of her own children’s classmates finds a website with mug shots of former convicts. Before too long a decade as a mother, a trusted employee, a loving wife was swept away. She was once again the ex-convict.

Part of the problem, of course, is our chronic tendency to overshare: a friend who also happens to be an NHS Consultant pointed out that lots of doctors are active on Twitter, but few lawyers are. I explained that for lawyers, it is far easier to enliven Cameron’s First Law: lawyers are expected, both socially and by our professional associations, to watch what comes out of our mouths in a way that doctors aren’t. However, it is worth remembering that ‘lawyer’ is an employment classification. No-one is a lawyer 24/7.

I also see various friends cheefully gabbling (on Facebook and Twitter) about everything from their mental illness to their adventures in polyamory to their inability to pay their bills from one week to the next and often catch myself asking: do you not want a job? Do you not realise how this looks? Do you not realise how the Internet never forgets? In many respects, indiscretion is worse than drunken pictures: one friend who grew up in Fife observed (astutely) that a Scottish employer coming across a Fifer’s Facebook profile sans nightclub pics or football silliness is apt to think the whole thing unreal.

Not about free speech

As should be reasonably obvious, I am opposed to gaoling or awarding damages against people for stupid things they say online unless their words would also amount to a crime or delict in the offline world: incitement, harassment, breach of the peace, defamation. I think s 127 of the Communications Act 2003 is a pox-ridden excrudescence on the British body politic. My view of s 5 of the Public Order Act (which is to similar effect as s 127, but for the offline world) aligns with that of comedian Rowan Atkinson.

However, I also think reducing the opportunities for behavioural policing afforded by social media to a debate about freedom of speech begs the question in many ways: Michael Brutsch is protected by his country’s First Amendment, but there he is, jobless and without health insurance, and infamis all over the planet, as well as mulishly unaware of the seriousness of his predicament (if this piece in the New Yorker is to be believed). Matthew Woods was only prosecuted after a crowd of people gathered outside his house, much like the Roman women who would generate a racket with saucepans and skillets outside the villa of an individual considered infamis. Ditto for Azhar Ahmed (his online comments were found by a soldier’s bereaved parent). The Internet may have been developed by people who thought cyberspace would facilitate utopian dreams of bodiless freedom online (that’s the EFF being clueless, by the way), but in fact the opposite is true: like CCTV, it just makes evidence gathering for everyone from employers to law enforcement that much easier.

And thing is, we’ve always accepted employers’ rights to exercise a degree of control over their employees, especially when it comes to protecting a given employer’s reputation or preserving harmony within the workplace; speech has always been constrained by the contract of employment, up to and including the Official Secrets Act. We’ve always accepted the right of advertisers to take their business elsewhere, as in the Alan Jones case. However, we’ve also forgotten how crushingly difficult it is to be nice all the time, to always be courteous, discreet, and polite. In that sense, manners do cost something: everyone, not just lawyers, now has to mind their mouths at just that point in history where an unminded mouth will leave a digital footprint for as long as we have the Internet. This is not to make excuses for Michael Brutsch or Matthew Woods or Alan Jones or Azhar Ahmed, all of whom deserve some form of censure, even if not one borne of law. Rather, it is to point out that even the politest and most orderly people slip, and the slips are now that much harder to manage.

Think, for example, of the painstaking work by disability and mental health advocates to assuage the stigmatisation of various conditions: now an employer can do ‘due diligence’ via google and Facebook and Twitter and remove from the hiring pool everyone who has made honest but unfortunate disclosures. Think, too, of the painstaking work done by feminists to ameliorate the social requirement that women always be ‘conciliatory’, or that men always be ‘stoical’: all of it undone when a woman is revealed to be aggressive, or a man emotive, while online.

Of course, minding one’s mouth is mostly all right for lawyers: we tend to be well paid and schooled in the practice of le mot juste. Expecting similar restraint from everyone else, without recompense, is probably unreasonable. Then there is the broader question of whether we wish to live in a society once again ordered by politeness codes. For those who decry the ‘political correctness’ directed at Andrew Bolt or Alan Jones or Catherine Deveney, may I suggest a six month course in Japanese or Latin? Or English in the time of Chaucer? There you will encounter entire languages built around hierarchy and courtesy, and–as one would expect–also larded with hypocrisy as people divided their public from their private lives with the legal and linguistic equivalent of the Berlin Wall.

The way we live now

We now live in a world where most everything we say is recorded somewhere, for everyone to see–including persons with an interest in it: employers, advertisers, law enforcement. We can use free speech arguments to defend ourselves from the third of those groups, but not the other two. Keeping a still tongue in one’s head is now necessary in ways it hasn’t been for a very long time. Teasing out the implications of that, then living with them with some sort of equanimity, may take a very long time indeed.


  1. Posted October 19, 2012 at 5:22 am | Permalink

    pixels across the screen
    “… these are the transcripts of our lives …”

  2. Posted October 19, 2012 at 5:33 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Beautifully phrased 🙂

  3. Posted October 19, 2012 at 5:44 am | Permalink

    Thank you Signor.
    I now regret all my 2001 online indiscretions** and now have so many pseudonyms I don’t know who I am anymore.

    **genealogy noticeboards are a huge subset now, and people who post entire family trees are a reason to constantly search one’s own name and then request removal.

    I have put this excellent post on my Farcebuck page dear SL. Thanks.

  4. Posted October 19, 2012 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    You’re welcome, AoD. I have been chewing this one over for quite a while, and I have another guest post in the pipeline focussing on the technical aspects of our collective inability to forget that should be worth a read, too.

    The issues are complex.

  5. kvd
    Posted October 19, 2012 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    An interesting strart point SL – thanks. As a first up comment (and happy to show my ignorance) is there any web-based ‘tool’ available to discover one’s “footprint”? I only ask, because all I ever see in these sorts of discussions is references to FB, Twitter, and blogs.

    Obviously I accept there’s a store of financial, credit-type info around, but I guess my silly question is – if you don’t participate in either FB or Twitter (or any lookalikes), then what is there to actually disgrace yourself with?

    Or are you more looking forward to the threatened caching of email, searches, downloads, etc.?

  6. Posted October 19, 2012 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    Both worry me, kvd, but I lack the technical expertise to be able to comment much beyond concerns about caching of email and searches, and the use of social media.

    Heath Gibson (who used to write for Catallaxy) and who is a genuine techie is covering the technical aspects in the post he’s working on at the moment – I’m hoping it will be finished soon.

    From what I understand, retaining one’s online anonymity is actually now a great deal more difficult than it used to be.

  7. LJS
    Posted October 19, 2012 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    I haven’t logged in to my FB account in almost a year…guess I should “delete” it.

    It would require some careful planning – and eternal vigilence – to remain anonymous on the ‘Net: e.g. even if you don’t have accounts with FB etc. they probably have a profile or multiple profile fragments built up from your browsing habits (think all those +1 buttons, any site that lets you log in with your facebook ID arrrg! etc.). Add in mathematical results in recent years in de-anonymisation of graphs and it’s not hard to imagine that they already know who you are (or soon will), they just won’t admit it because people would be (briefly) furious. You create a FB/Google+ account and it will be pre-filled! *Shudder*

    To combat this you need to use anonymising networks/proxies like TOR, clear your browser state after every session, maybe use clean slate virtual machines/live disks, and frankly that’s a lot of work to go to when all you want to do is watch a cat riding around on a Roomba.

    SL: I think I remember HeathG from when I used to read the Cat way back when, in which case looking forward to his thoughts.

  8. Posted October 19, 2012 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    Keeping a still tongue in one’s head is now necessary in ways it hasn’t been for a very long time.

    For white men, perhaps? It’s long been necessary for women, or at least for women in the company of men. As it has been for black people.

  9. Posted October 19, 2012 at 9:26 am | Permalink


    What a sweeping statement. There are plenty of even white men who find it prudent and necessary to be cautious in their speech acts in the company of other men, and not only other white men.

  10. Jolly
    Posted October 19, 2012 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Both of you are correct in different ways. Yes, women have been socially indoctrinated to keep a “still tongue” in male company and to even sound a little ‘silly’ (unthreatening) in order to get male attention. At parties and bars this is still being (albeit subtly) practised in varying degrees by young people, esp young ladies. Yes there are plenty of “white men” who are both prudent and polite in their speech. My Asian friend mentioned that people get offended when he speaks up to assert his views as there is a common expectation that Asians need to “keep a still tongue..” This comment from him surprised me, to say the least. So society expects Asians and “black people” to “keep a still tongue” may still ring true. DISGUSTING!

  11. Mel
    Posted October 19, 2012 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    [email protected] 8: “For white men, perhaps? It’s long been necessary for women, or at least for women in the company of men.”

    You mean like Margaret Thatcher?

    “As it has been for black people.”

    You mean like Barak Obama? Or Anthony Mundine?

    I think the contemporary world may be a tad more complicated than your black and white imaginary may suggest.

  12. RipleyP
    Posted October 19, 2012 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    A very interesting piece and I think you for the thoughts it has provoked.
    It is interesting that the “Google Test” is now a normal part of the hiring process for many employers. The issue of course can revolve around the use of the information obtained by the test. The clever prospective employer would be ill-advised to tell the unsuccessful applicant they were not hired due to drunken pictures or drug references or similar found on a social media site.
    A job very early in my career got interesting when I attended an interview. I was at the time also a volunteer with a free legal group. The day before the interview I had been at court helping with a case for a defendant who was quite notorious and made for great news.
    Alas I was filmed in company of other lawyers walking beside the defendant whose coat was over his head. Being the largest person I was used somewhat to screen the client from the cameras.
    The panel of interviewing lawyers recognised me from the news the night before and a drawn out discussion about the ethics of defending persons accused of crimes abhorred by the community at large ensued.
    Very little was discussed in regard to the area of law I was applying to work in which had nothing what so ever to do with the discussion of criminal defence ethics.
    Alas I didn’t get the job and I think this was partially linked to the distraction of the news footage.
    I am still intrigued by the remedies and options available to clients who are the victim of online harassment in the face of law enforcement lacking either the will or resources to deal with the complaints.

  13. kvd
    Posted October 19, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    a drawn out discussion about the ethics of defending persons accused of crimes abhorred by the community at large ensued.

    Ripley you chose well in choosing not to give those lawyers your services. A firm with that attitude needs some serious self-examination, not to mention a brush up on just what is meant by ‘justice’.

  14. Holden Caulfield
    Posted October 19, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    A movement has started among employers questioning the wisdom of conducting online background checks of job applicants. Many argue the online data unfairly biases assessment of the applicant with the more colourful digital footprint. Though I wonder how successfully any HR policy could prevent managers taking a peep anyway.

  15. Posted October 19, 2012 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    A most interesting and thought-provoking essay, especially as I seem to have unintentionally insulted someone in an essay of my own on my website. I am almost excessively careful to use a conversational and inclusive style, and have done for forty years, but it didn’t save me on this occasion.

    If one tries to be polite and careful and avoid any possible offence to anyone, won’t the outcome be bland and uninteresting?

  16. Posted October 19, 2012 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

    a few years back, “google me“ with a few sample keyword searches was close enough to a resume for me …

    as for anonymity, hard now, but when the net was smaller, newsgroups the social networks, it was useful to have no anonymity, details up, strangers would send postcards, tshirts and books to my daughter to say thanks for what I did, one could email questions to strangers you knew had the answers, and field questions via international phone calls or email – the equivalent of the large town nod at nameless but familiar faces you keep seeing on the street. Anonymity was not an issue when net was mainly “gentlefolk“ using computers in academia, government and IT companies, with general companies nowhere to be seen … As long as one stayed away from places in the newsgroup tree that functioned like a red light district – like the infamous alt.s*x.b*st**lity.gophers. Sure, there were flamewars, but they tended to not be directed at individuals… Nearly all parts of the net were ”leafy inner suburbs“ where good manners were pretty much standard – it was a select population of the more educated and civilized – and largely a gift economy.

    Then we got flooded by people from a foreign culture who didn’t pick up our mores and customs (Lorenzo can make parallels, I am sure) … and trust and politeness dropped. We’d thought they would become civilized, but too many were anonymous … less educated, more easily inflamed … and less polite.

    Do you know what a haven this site is for someone from the 1980s net? Maybe this is a provincial town, those without names still known to be given the modern equivalent of “the provincial town nod”. We need more such havens, and maybe good manners will spread.

  17. Posted October 19, 2012 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] on HR types. It gets ugly when potential employers want you to hand over your fb password, like giving them keys to your house knowing they feel free to enter at 1am and rummage around, not merely peek through the windows.

  18. m
    Posted October 20, 2012 at 4:42 am | Permalink


    Current society is shallow and weak. There is no information currently on the internet that justify this preocupation with personal information.

    Your words just navigate unskilled and prejudiced internet 5-paragraph readership into a blind alley, the alley of unconscious narcissism. In many respects, this narcissism is quite humiliating. Nonetheless, it is such a merciless weakness. Like that.

    And why should companies bother with who you are off work. I thought business is business. And it is, but not for the frail of mind. For them the ‘social network’ occupies their real real, real virtual lives.

    So who are you, eh? A mindless narcissistic speck.

    Clear your thoughts, people. Articles like this are misconstrued and faulty for they assume the very thing they lament about, i.e. no way out.

  19. Posted October 20, 2012 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    [email protected]
    i note illinois law just passed, making fb password handover illegal, forbes plays it down (http://www.forbes.com/sites/shelisrael/2012/03/25/the-great-facebook-employee-password-nonissue/) but in the uk employers arguing it should not be ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/facebook/9162356/Facebook-passwords-fair-game-in-job-interviews.html).

    I know people like us have some choice of employers, so we could say “get lost” but not all are so lucky.

  20. Holden Caulfield
    Posted October 20, 2012 at 10:33 am | Permalink


    In just a couple of years a “troll” has gone from someone who engages in a academic and political flame wars to someone who provokes suicides and sex crimes!

  21. Chris
    Posted October 20, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    But even if one does not have an online presence, one’s online presence as created by others can intrude into real life (as with the mother who had been convicted of a crime as a teenager). In that case, the mother may not have engaged with online groups at all, but others did, and that affected her real life.

    Yes, Its important for people to remember that they may not be putting up photos of their drunken escapades up on facebook for everyone to see. But their friends may well be. Or even someone they don’t know and the systems will use face recognition software to helpfully tag you.

    However if the occurrences of these sorts of things become commonplace, especially those at the low level like being drunk in public which perhaps a majority of people end up doing at some stage of their life, perhaps their impact will be less. Employers will just be used to seeing it.

    Employers using search engines to look for information is not going to go away. What people get up to on their non work time is not so important, but you can get insights into how well people communicate with others. Eg are they abusive in their language? How do they respond when in conflict with others?

  22. Holden Caulfield
    Posted October 20, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Permalink


    I imagine that ambitious and savvy parents are already advising their children to start creating two digital identities; one, their true self; the other, a deliberate self-marketing resume that ticks all the boxes that please employers.

  23. Chris
    Posted October 20, 2012 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    Holden – that may work for now. But in the future there’s certainly no guarantee that the two will not end up linked.

    Just as an example, google search may decides that two facebook/twitter/google+ identities are actually the same person based on facial recognition and start including results for one set of search terms based on another.

    Or it may even be simpler where a 3rd party quite innocently refers to the two personas as the same person or it can be reasonably inferred by content and search engines discover this relationship.

    You think Gillard and Abbott have it tough with people looking into their background now? Life is going to be much worse for aspiring senior politicians in 20-30 years time.

  24. Posted October 20, 2012 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] – because of this SL topic I thought it was time I put my own name into Search, and have just found my actual name linked directly to one of my pseudonymous blogs. Have wasted 15 mins trying to stop this. sigh.

  25. Posted October 20, 2012 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    I’m with [email protected] in that I think it’s not just behaviour that will be changed, but also people’s methods of judging behaviour. If one considers the old social structures in which manners would have evolved, the consequences would have been much greater for social indiscretions, but so to would the knowledge of the rest of the person’s behaviour. The matter wouldn’t have been considered in isolation. This seems to me to a much better basis for forgiveness than Turnbull’s memory degradation. Perhaps greater information availability will better enable judgement of individual incidents to be made in the proper context. An unflattering photo or politically incorrect comment might not seem so bad in the context of a life of family photos and otherwise reasonable commentary.

    There was a TED talk I watched recently about how we’re be moving to a ‘digitised trust economy‘. I wonder if it’d be more effective to judge people (as proposed in the talk) through systematic collection of opinions, rather than the more event based nature of Facebook information. I think I’d feel more comfortable with such an approach, and I’m also pretty sure I’d struggle to maintain my manners if an employer went as far as asking for any of my on-line passwords (Facebook or otherwise).

    The other aspect of how people are judge is the way crowds react within social media. It doesn’t take much for a particular issue to ‘go viral’ and cause far more harm to someone’s reputation than their actions perhaps warranted. Social media has increased the likelihood a lapse in judgement (or an even innocent act) can become a tangible threat to one’s employer and thus to one’s livelihood. We can’t walk on egg shells all our lives and it doesn’t seem fair for people to randomly fall victim to some chaotic digital beast. I hope ‘be without sin before casting the stone’ becomes part of whatever new manners system evolves.

  26. Chris
    Posted October 20, 2012 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    ann odyne – search engines are pretty amazing! They get more compute power and better algorithms every year and its quite hard to get them to forget anything.

    After having quite a few problems with a builder that acted very badly I made sure that when you googled them you also got a reference to a blog I kept with quite detailed information on interactions I had with them. But I was also very careful to keep to only easily proveable facts on my blog.

    I think I’d feel more comfortable with such an approach, and I’m also pretty sure I’d struggle to maintain my manners if an employer went as far as asking for any of my on-line passwords (Facebook or otherwise).

    I would never give my facebook password to someone else because it would give them much more than read access to my timeline. But I wouldn’t be concerned about a prospective employer seeing what I have posted (say through friending, since most of my posts and comments are restricted) simply because I’m pretty careful about what I say on social media sites where I use my real name. Whether we like it or not employers are increasingly getting held responsible by the public for their employees private views and actions. So you can expect employers to respond.

    I use a non-identifying email address for posting to blogs that I don’t use for anything else. No doubt someone very determined could track me down if they went to enough effort as over the years I’ve most likely released too much personally identifying information in bits and pieces. But I’d have to really annoy someone reasonably skilled for them to go to that sort of effort. And even then I try to be reasonably polite when posting semi-anonymously 😉

    We can’t walk on egg shells all our lives and it doesn’t seem fair for people to randomly fall victim to some chaotic digital beast. I hope ‘be without sin before casting the stone’ becomes part of whatever new manners system evolves.

    I totally agree. Though I have little sympathy for Alan Jones’ current predicament and quite happily contribute to the secondary boycott in my own little way. He has quite happily used his considerable media influence in the past I don’t think he can really complain – he has a very strong personal ability to reply that most people don’t.

    I hope over time that people become more accepting of one-off lapses in judgement – and perhaps the more common they become, the more tolerant or immune the general public will become too.

    I am however horrified to hear of the criminal legal action occurring in the UK over offensive comments by ordinary people. I hope we don’t head this way in Australia. I am quite happy for a bit of short term public ostracism/rebuke (10 seconds of infamy) even if it just serves as a lesson to others, but I don’t think it should be a criminal matter.

    I find myself a bit sympathetic to the guy in the US losing his job given his wife’s illness. I hate what he did, but I still wouldn’t wish that predicament on anyone. I’m not a huge fan of the “at will” system of employment, or perhaps more importantly the perverse linkage between employment and having half decent health coverage.

  27. Posted October 21, 2012 at 6:27 am | Permalink

    desipis#30 – ” It doesn’t take much for a particular issue to ‘go viral’ and cause far more harm to someone’s reputation than their actions perhaps warranted. ” = The Laptop Lynchmob.

  28. Posted October 21, 2012 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    Some really fascinating responses, to which I’d love to respond in some depth, but first a word of thanks especially to Chris (not seen you a great deal around the blog before, but then of course it’s entirely possible I’ve failed to wash the sleeps out of my eyes!)

    A few thoughts.


    If one tries to be polite and careful and avoid any possible offence to anyone, won’t the outcome be bland and uninteresting?

    I think this is a real danger, as is a close analogue – a situation where the only people who can express controversial views are the well-spoken, which is almost always a proxy for class. One can see this in the UK with the reaction to Tom Holland’s film for C4 on the origins of Islam. British Muslims didn’t understand what had hit them when the PC, liberal intelligentsia bit them right in the rear for threatening national treasure Tom, who is a charming classicist (he’s a sort of Prof Mary Beard in training). This is because Tom Holland can point out everything that’s wrong with Islam in the right ‘tone’ of voice. By contrast, no-one could be found to defend the speech rights of the not very literate Egyptian-American who made ‘Innocence of Muslims’. Not our sort, you see.

    [email protected]: I don’t think the feminist argument holds very well, now, for all the obvious and high profile reasons. However, it is worth remembering that speech policing was very often directed at women historically (click through and read even the potted wiki-history of the Scold’s Bridle linked in the text for a sense of that); it’s one reason why I think feminists should use it with caution. Of course, if you step back again to Roman times, you find women independently powerful enough to police the speech of plenty of men, often fortified by the capacities incidental to citizenship and education (and, of course, race was not a factor, that being a much later development). The Roman model seems to be what we are adopting, and one can see the likes of Alan Jones chafing against it – men got a pretty free run at policing female behaviour for a very long time there. That said, it is significant that Jones’s sexuality wasn’t used against him, as it would have been in Roman times (I’m thinking of a notorious incident where a prominent Roman woman managed to get declarator of infamia against a man on the basis that he was a passive homosexual to non-citizens). Can’t have that, chaps and chappettes. Not our sort, etc.

    Chris (in the midst of lots of good thoughts, and Desipis too):

    I am however horrified to hear of the criminal legal action occurring in the UK over offensive comments by ordinary people. I hope we don’t head this way in Australia. I am quite happy for a bit of short term public ostracism/rebuke (10 seconds of infamy) even if it just serves as a lesson to others, but I don’t think it should be a criminal matter.

    It may be the we will evolve an infamia style form of social censure that will obviate the need for the law to get involved: there has been far too much mistaking of the state for society or community of late in any case. But we do, however, have to appreciate what this means long term: people like Michael Brutsch will have to mind their ps and qs to a greater degree than someone with a more secure employment contract, or in the position to go elsewhere for work (a point Dave & LE also made). And which feeds into point #1.

    I also take Holden’s point about the possibility that at least some HR people have the wit to realise that googling a potential employee can be pretty unproductive, and that some indiscretions (a night on the town, stag or hen dos, etc) are really rather minor in the scheme of things.

  29. kvd
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Yet another reason why I am pleased not to have sploshed (that’s a non-technical term) my entire life into Facebook, Twitter, and ‘The Cloud’.

    Add on the present government pressing for two years’ retention of everything I write or read on the internet and I’m very pleased the first Google reference to my name is that of an executed Texas axe murderer 😉

  30. Posted October 31, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    {sings} I always feel like, somebody’s watching me… and I have no privacy…

  31. kvd
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    So, on the one hand you can buy likes for Facebook, Twitter, etc. – and, on the other, Facebook will now charge you to broadcast to them (politely of course).

    I guess there’s a rational business model buried in there somewhere, but I’m struggling to see it.

  32. kvd
    Posted November 6, 2012 at 4:29 am | Permalink

    From another blog I read, about a US Presidential campaign email (forget the politics, just look at the ramifications of FB use). Stuck here because it relates to the subject…

    “How many people with your name have voted already?” To get the answer, you have to click on a button that takes you to a page where you’re supposed to log into Facebook, and the fine print says:

    Your basic info
    Your email address ([email protected])
    Your profile info: birthday, likes and location
    Your photos
    Friends’ profile info: birthdays, likes and locations
    Photos shared with you

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  1. By Skepticlawyer » Saints and Scroungers on October 24, 2012 at 2:45 am

    […] then opinions were argued fast and died young, but as I’ve been horrified to realise having read SL’s recent piece, a good chunk of it is still […]

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