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Is Your Facebook Info Public? Ask a Marine.
By: Brett Moneta
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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: what you say can and will be held against you. Especially if you say it in a public forum: Twitter, message boards, a blog, and yes, even Facebook.

In recent news, a marine faces a reduction in rank and administrative discharge for posting anti-Obama comments on his Facebook page.

According to the Washington Post article and video, the marine criticized Obama’s and the Secretary of Defense’s policies in a post on Facebook. His response was, “Hey — I didn’t say it in a public demonstration or shout it from the rooftops. I just posted it on Facebook.“

Sure, we could go into the politics of the issue — the fact that the guy is a founder of the Armed Forces Tea Party and the political motives involved on both sides— but let’s stick with the Facebook aspect for now. 
First, let’s look at the free speech angle of Facebook.

With the evolution of Web 2.0, we’ve already learned that free speech is not absolute. You can’t say anything you want and get away with it. You can’t make a bomb threat, slander someone, put up lewd photos of yourself, or complain about your boss. Well, you can, but you can’t expect the number of consequences to equal zero.

Time and time again, people on Twitter have criticized certain entities and have claimed that they have the right to free speech. Well, they do. But so do the entities they are criticizing. If you tell people your boss stinks and that gets back to him, he has the right to fire you. It’s unfortunate that he did that and unfortunate that you said it, but he has the right to send you packing. You could say, in a nutshell, that’s what this is. He criticized the CEO of his company: the Commander in Chief. So we know that if you tweet something negative about your boss and the wrong person reads it, there will be trouble.

Then there’s another important question: Is Facebook Public? My first instinct is to say no. It's not. After all, they’ve gone to great lengths to protect your privacy. They’ve set up specific settings to allow you to “control” what you share. And who you share it with. So that says you get to control who sees what, right?

Well, there are two problems with that. If I say you said something, it could stand up in a court of law. It could be considered hearsay. But, again, a trial is a consequence, even if you’re considered innocent. The other problem comes direct from Facebook’s Help Center:

What is considered "public information"?
Any content that is available to a public audience is considered public information. 

Things you share on your profile (Timeline)

Your name, gender, username, and user ID (account number), along with your profile picture, cover photo, and networks (if you choose to add these) are available to anyone. This is because this information is essential to helping you connect with your friends and family.

  • Your name, profile picture, and cover photo help friends recognize you.
  • Gender helps us describe you (ex: "Add her as a friend").
  • Listing your networks (such as your school or workplace) lets the people in those networks see who's there. So if you choose to share something with a network, you know who can see it.
  • Username and user ID (account number) are in the URL link to your profile (timeline).
Other things you share

In addition, anything you choose to share with a public audience (designated by "a globe" in your audience selector) is considered public information. Learn more about using the audience selector to control who you share with each time you post.

So did Sgt. Gary Stein, USMC have his settings set to “Public?” Maybe that’s what it will come down to. Or maybe it will come to the larger decision of who really owns your information and what your Facebook postings qualify as. We all know that Facebook has said more than once that it owns your information.

Politically, it’s ugly for both sides. You could even say it’s not fair. Maybe it’s not. But that wouldn’t be any different in the private sector. The politics of firing people are ugly there, too. Nobody wins. Sometimes there are lawsuits and bad PR, but companies have policies and many are specifically creating social media policies to deal with this exact issue. The Pentagon has a policy of not allowing a service member of the armed forces to engage in partisan politics, but no social media policy to speak of.

Regardless of how this one turns out, it will certainly set a precedent.

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About the Author
Brett Moneta has been playing in the digital world since 1996. He’s worked for companies like AOL, Avenue A | Razorfish, and Omnicom, developing content strategy and consulting on usability for companies in IT, consumer electronics, retail, healthcare, energy, and more. You can follow his tweets and read his blog too. Find him online here.
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