The social networks debate

Enrique Dans. Professor. IE Business School

5 November 2009

Social networks, like all technological advances, have opened up another Pandora’s Box. Can their use be banned or limited? Let’s be logical about this - no.

Social networks and the perceptions certain social classes have of them have been in the news of late. The proposal put forward by Partido Popular, which has now been withdrawn, on age limits for the use of social networks and the need for parental supervision has revealed many things, not so much because of the idea itself, but rather the extent of the debate it has sparked.

This far down the line, the proposal has lost interest. According to one of the MPs involved, Santiago Cervera, a commission that was working on a package of measures for the protection of minors used a draft version in a press conference that had not been appropriately revised and was very different from its final version, an apology that seems similar to his party´s view of social networks.

The problem is actually simply a question of whether or not private affairs should be legislated: the idea of the law interfering with the education parents should give their children or what their children do with their computers is not very recommendable because it invades competencies it shouldn´t invade and because it generates a law that cannot be applied on a practical level. For years, certain US states declared oral and anal sex illegal because they considered it to be contra natura, until said laws were invalidated in 2003 by the Supreme Court: does anyone think that people stopped such sexual practices in those states or that it was in any way positive for the law to interfere in what happened in citizens´ bedrooms? Except for serious crimes, such as domestic violence, private affairs represent a barrier that should not be passed. This is the case of downloads, for example: the idea of breaching the confidentiality of communications to find out whether or not a citizen is downloading material that is subject to copyright is tantamount to liberticide. It is one thing to tap the telephone of an alleged terrorist when ordered by a judge and it is another somewhat disproportionate and absurd thing to spy on the telephone line of someone downloading a song, which is not illegal in itself and also takes place in a private space with no intention of making a profit.

The debate on social attitudes to technology is interesting because technology is usually developed before society has decided how it is to be used. As soon as the use becomes widespread and the first problems arise, a debate takes place on the convenience of the technology, in which there are those who seem to think it is possible to stop time and make the technology disappear. Social networks form part of a scenario that is here to stay: the human being is the only species capable of maintaining social relations without the need for physical proximity, a capacity that is based on technology. Trying to keep young people out of the place in which they are to develop many of their future relations is to deprive them of a learning process they will undoubtedly need. Having an image of social networks as something that is harmful, that represents terrible risks or that generates losses in productivity is the result of uninformed opinions: it is as absurd to try to keep your children off social networks as it is to do the same with your employees. What you have to do is teach them how to use them properly: teaching users that social networks do not consist of collecting contacts, but rather of administrating them with care or being careful when sharing information, as was recently pointed out by Barack Obama.

In a short space of time, social networks will be commonplace and their existence and use will not even be a matter of consideration. Prohibiting them would be the act of impenitent retrogrades: would we prohibit an employee from using his or her mobile telephone? If he/she were on the phone for three hours, then we probably would; however, that is not prohibiting use, but rather abuse.

The debate on social networks is missing the evolution of uses and customs: using them is logical, abusing them is not. In time, networks will be more aware of the different forms of abuse (threats, harassment and insults, etc.) and society will be more ready to use them. Meanwhile, be careful. Especially when legislating.

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