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Martha Muzychka: Content may be king online, but context should be emperor

Last week, Newfoundland and Labrador’s privacy commissioner released guidelines for public bodies.


Martha Muzychka
Martha Muzychka


Donovan Molloy told the CBC reviewing the social media accounts of job candidates was not consistent with the practices specified for collecting personal information as defined in the province’s privacy legislation.

“In our view, they’re not meant for public-body employers in Newfoundland and Labrador to use as an indirect source of determining whether or not you’re somebody that they might want to hire.”

In short, Molloy says don’t do it.

Feedback online was swift. Most of it could be summed up simply with “Good luck with that.”

Even though the guideline applies only to public bodies, not private companies, the discussions got me wondering: when is public information not public?

If we look at the most widely used social media networks — Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram (which is now owned by Facebook) — all of them have options to limit access to what can be viewed by others.

For some people, direct personal connections must be in place for you to see information they have shared. Even then, there may be restrictions or limitations.

Clearly, the issue is neither simple nor easy to settle. It’s actually pretty complicated to determine where the lines can be drawn.

On Twitter for example, if your account is private, only people who have permission can see your posts. They cannot share that information unless they make a copy – usually a screenshot.

For others, the social network is no different than their bulletin board or office door – everything is available for anyone to read or view.

In the past five years, there’s been lots of examples of people facing sanctions, or even losing their jobs over the content of their posts. Just this week, various media published stories about a CP Rail employee who lost her job last fall because of inappropriate comments she made about her employer and photographs she shared of herself posing on railway lines.

If she seeks employment with a public body in this province, her social media accounts are off limits. But what about the published media stories online? Do they also fall into the area of social networks? What about published comments or personal blogs that name names?

Clearly, the issue is neither simple nor easy to settle. It’s actually pretty complicated to determine where the lines can be drawn.

There is a tendency in our hyper-connected world to rush to judgment. You only need look at the Justine Sacco case in 2013 when a thoughtless comment meant ironically (“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”) fell so flat it resulted in global controversy. Sacco lost her job and spent a couple of years working under the radar. Today, she has been rehired by the same company that fired her.

Her boss, Joey Levin, CEO of IAC and chairman of Match Group, said of her rehiring: “With one notable exception, Justine’s track record speaks for itself. (…) I’m very happy to have her great mind and boundless positive energy back on the team.”

Content may be king on the internet, but clearly context is in line to be emperor.

Most of the people who support reviewing public information online as part of pre-employment screenings, including details retrieved from open networks or unlocked accounts, subscribe to the “one swallow doesn’t make a summer” rule.

And there is merit in that. People do change over time, and redemption, as we saw with Sacco, is possible.

The other line to consider is fact-checking. Reviewing online information is helpful in verifying the credibility of a potential employee. While content posted openly on social media accounts is public, in the same way one could argue that message sharing on bathrooms walls is public, Molloy proposes limiting the use of that information within the context of the law where consent for collection is key.

In effect, Molloy is arguing that implied permission through public posting isn’t sufficiently explicit to support its use.

And this is where we need to engage in more discussion to think more broadly about the meaning of public. While content and context matter, what we really need more of is consent and clarity.


Martha Muzychka is a writer and consultant living in St. John’s.

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