Thursday, April 26, 2007

I approach re-employment in I.T. as an asymptote -- what about my blogs?

Yes, I may be returning to the “conventional” information technology job market. I’ve discussed this on another blog.

Since I’ve had ten years of self-published writing, blogging and search engines connecting me to controversial issues, yes, I do wonder if this will cause conflicts.

Back in the 1990s, I had dealt with this possibility when writing my first book, dealing heavily with gays in the military (the military ban was a personal affront to me) when at the same time I was working for a life insurance company centered around selling to military officers. The company was acquired, and I went on to the acquiring company into another line of business (it’s a bit more complicated than that, but that’s it in a nutshell).

In previous postings on this blog, I’ve noted the increasing employer concern over social networking site profiles and personal blogs as reported by the media in the past two years. Much of the concern seems to be focused on self-defamation, the posting of videos or accounts of illegal behavior (especially drug use or underage drinking), including sometimes unbeknownst postings by others.

But what seems more troubling is the idea of “implicit content,” a concept mentioned in the COPA trial. That notion refers to the meaning by the visitor given to (often self-published) content, particularly in light of what the visitor knows about the speaker or how the speaker perceives the speaker. This meaning goes beyond the literal content, which is more often the subject of legal attention; it is what we call “reading between the lines.” The visitor may question the motives of the speaker and in extreme cases feel enticed to act (conceivably an arcane and unexplored legal liability for the speaker), when the visitor finds certain materials with unusual personal candor. The same material, taken verbatim from an accepted “professional media” source would not create the same level of controversy.

This is a little bit analogous to the layered controversy over Don Imus. It was acceptable, according to the “rules” for rappers to use his language to describe themselves, but not for someone outside the community. Likewise, certain materials when created by an individual could create more concern than when distributed in conventional commercial channels.

I’ve wondered even if the “right to publish” as an individual could be contested and litigated as a separate area of free speech, but so far the courts (including the Supreme Court) have been quite reassuring in keeping global free-entry publication incorporated into the First Amendment as it is viewed today. However, employers are discovering that employee public-space speech (even done from home with their own resources) can affect them, even beyond the usual concerns of the past, and we could see new legal questions about intellectual property and "right of publicity" ownership no one can answer yet.

Employers naturally worry about two major negative potentialities. One is legal liability should the employee or new hire actually do something harmful. If an employer knew about underage drinking and then the employee had an accident at work, there could be a liability exposure. . Recent sensational tragic events around the world, sometimes perpetrated asymmetrically by unnoticed individuals, are not reassuring. The other is more like a conventional conflict of interest, or hostile workplace. If someone is responsible for making decisions that affect stakeholders and then displays hostility to certain groups of people in the public space, there could be legal claims. And employers may become concerned that seemingly innocuous statements on a blog could inadvertently (as “implicit content”) imply some confidential information in a company.

Already, there are companies offering to help individuals defend their “reputations” online (where reputation sometimes has a social context with respect to family or hierarchy, as well as a professional component). Other companies suggest that they can manage a professional’s “profile” on line. Some employers might come to insist that all of their associates permit monitoring or management of their online activities by these companies. That would sound like a logical development, and it is scary, as it could lead to policing social conformity.

I still believe that a major issue is what kind of job a person has. An individual contributor presents less “risk” than a manager or underwriter. An hourly worker may have a greater expectation of being left alone than a salaried person (although everyone must honor confidentiality, trade secrets and intellectual property as it used to be understood). That is one reason why, for the time being, I want to remain hourly and an individual contributor in most situations.

One obvious question: why not blog about only limited topics. People do this within their professions all the time, and may well be paid to do so. That may be OK within a certain context, but the writings on these blogs are about political and social issues that have shaped my own life. And all the issues are interrelated like neural circuits. What, may you ask, is the relationship between “gays in the military” (which started this) and COPA? Well, free speech and the Internet contradicts the idea that sexuality can remain covert. What about gay rights and health care? One obvious link is HIV. Another is eldercare – gays have fewer children but may bear a disproportionate burden of eldercare in the future. A more obvious connection can exist between "gay rights" and national security -- what happens to the "don't ask don't tell" policy if there is a draft or mandatory national service, and what happens to the foreign language talent that the military needs? A core concept linking all of these, well known in the insurance business and offensive to some people, is personal moral hazard. It's useful for someone to keep track of our progress on issues like pandemics, global warming, oil shortages, in connection with other social issues (personal mobility and expression) tied to these, giving the material and edge that may help pressure the system to solve these problems. Furthermore, as indicated in the previous blog entry, individual speech, given search engines, can sometimes compete with special interest speech from paid lobbyists, and encourage more objective approaches to policy problems. This is an important priority for me--to be able to speak for myself and not be beholden to organizations, who may expect me to become loyal to other people's objectives that I may find morally questionable. I feel rather put off by emails urging massive protests, boycotts, or letter campaigns over single issue incidents--even though that was the best ordinary people could do until the Internet came along.

There is, of course, unprecedented "psychological" candor in some of my postings (and in similar postings by others), and it seems that some people do find that candor in some matters can become crippling.

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