A subject that has been front and center of attention in 2018 is Facebook’s handling of privacy. The sale of private information, the spread of bogus new stories, and making some information available to some parties over the others.
Here are some relevant aspects of Jewish law and spirit of the law relevant to the topic:
- Bal Yomar — The Talmud in Tractate Yoma states that if a person hears something from their friend they are forbidden to repeat that information to others unless they were granted specific permission to repeat it. Talmud learns this from the verse “Vayomer Hashem el Moshe Lemor”. One needs to be granted specific instruction to be permitted to repeat something to someone else. Rabbi Chaim Falaji argues that this is the source for the prohibition to read a letter that was not addressed to you specifically. It is important to note that in addition to that there is the 10th-century Cherem Derabenu Gershom on reading information that does not belong to you.
- “Lo Telech Rachil” — “ You shall not go around as a gossipmonger amidst your people. “ (Leviticus 19). There is a prohibition on spreading any kind of information that may cause someone harm or distress. This is the very definition of Lashon Hara. Another prohibition derived from this verse is the prohibition on rechilut. Spreading any information which despite not being outright negative may cause strife between two people. Saying something like “I heard Jeff does not like you anymore”, is not outright damaging, it is divisive. It is important to note that Maimonides and other commentaries extend this prohibition on general “spying” on your friend. Just going around telling others what you saw someone do according to Maimonides, is also included in the prohibition of Rechilut.
- Hezek Re’Iya — The Talmud at the beginning of tractate Bava Batra states that if I move in right outside your window I am obliged to pay for a fence. Why me? Because the party moving in is the party harming the one there already by infringing on their privacy. Every person has the right to live without feeling like they are being watched or spied on. Feeling no privacy is akin to being damaged and as deemed as a non-livable way. We all need privacy.
William Pitt the first Earl of Chattam famously wrote on this:” The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail — its roof may shake — the wind may blow through it — the storm may enter — the rain may enter — but the King of England cannot enter — all his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!”
- Ayin Hara — furthermore, the Talmud states that a person should not stand and stare at their friend’s produce when it is ripe and ready to be harvested because of concerns for “Ayin Hara”, an evil eye.
All this, points in the direction of Facebook’s practice of selling individual’s information to others — especially when done in a way that can cause harm—to be forbidden. This is especially true when it comes to selling our information to pharmaceutical companies, and other companies that may use the information against us. An outstanding example of the harming potential of information is when information given by Yahoo to the Chinese government was used to imprison and punish citizens.
There is a big problem with all of this. What was said above is true about information we want to be kept private. When we keep our privacy settings on in a way that we assume will protect our privacy. What if, however, we allow that information to be public? We now need to ask about information that is readily available on our public profiles?
- Apey Tlata — There is a Talmudic concept that states that if a person stated something publicly — be’apay Te’ata—in front of three or more people, that information becomes public knowledge. Does the same apply to information that was posted on social media? Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan in his magnum opus Chafetz Chaim writes that this permission does not apply if someone communicated that information publicly for a specific reason. For example, if someone came to a town to try out for a certain job and disclosed something publically for that specific reason it is not permitted to share that information in other places. The information shared was shared for a specific reason. A great example for this is the story of Doeg Ha’edomi telling king Saul where his enemy David is hiding. Despite some people knowing about this information, this sharing caused the death of the people of Nov the city of priests.
- Ona’at Devarim — Even when speaking about information shared publicly it is important to note that the concept of Ona’at Devarim still applies. If someone will be embarrassed or intimidated by information that is spread further, that information may not be spread.
The next big question that needs to be asked is what if a person consented to terms and conditions? How can one be upset over the discloser of information when they are using a service they signed up for? The user benefits from the platform and the platform provider benefits from the information they see. As it has been famously said: ”if you are not paying for the product, you are the product!”
The answer to this has to do with several elements:
- Genevat Da’at — when a person buys something they buy it in accordance to a commonly accepted mutual understanding. Facebook putting a terms and conditions page with more than 25 hyperlinks throughout the page — each of which is designed to make reading it more difficult—is structured in the form of Genevat Da’at (“theft of the mind” a concept in Jewish law and ethics that refers to a kind of dishonest misrepresentation or deception. It is applied in a wide spectrum of interpersonal situations, especially in business transactions (Wikipedia based on the work of Rabbi Aaron Levine). This applies both to the sharing of individual information as well as helping spread false news. Companies that deal with large amounts of information need to make sure A. people know what they are signing up for. B. no information which they know to be objectively false is spread.
The topic of Facebook’s privacy violations will be studied in history books, legal, and ethical works for generations to come. I hope this article is a good introduction to the many conversations that should take place in schools, synagogues, and public forums about the ethics of privacy.
I would like to thank Professor Sharon Aharoni-Goldenberg from the Netanya School of Law whose outstandingly well-researched article on this subject has been of great help.