Special Report: Facebook and Privacy
May 18, 2010
Commentary by Stephen Downes
"You are not Facebook's customer. You are the product that they sell to their real customers - advertisers. Forget this at your peril."

The furor over Facebook and its new privacy settings continues apace. In this article Will Richardson argues, "It's all about reputation, and there a lots of folks out there right now damaging their reputations on Facebook, many because they don't know any better." Danah boyd, in a widely cited article, writes, "Zuckerberg and gang may think that they know what's best for society, for individuals, but I violently disagree. I think that they know what's best for the privileged class." Jaspn Calcanis writes, "You can only screw people for so long before it catches up to you. The entire industry went from rooting for Zuckerberg to hating him and Facebook–in under 18 months."

Facebook has gone rogue, we are told. People feel betrayed. But what has changed? This graphic fropm MoveOn makes it pretty clear:



See also this New York Times visualization of the privacy settings. And here's a really good visualization of the changes over time. Experts are warning that these disclosures now amount to a security risk, according to Technology Review. And your information, once it's in Facebook, is in there forever. There are plenty of reasons to hate Facebook's privacy system.

But there's more. Facebook is introducing its own "currency", Facebook credits, on which it will collect 30 percent for every transaction. Without the normal regulation, the Facebook Credits has already run into a sea of controversy. Moreover, Facebook's plugins are now used by more than 100,000 sites, spreading the graph far and wide. This means affiliated sites can report your visit and help track you online (just like the old web bugs like Doubleckick. They may secretly install Facebook apps to spy on you even more. Facebook is like the old AOLl it's trying to become the web and financial infrastructure - but without any regulation. That, in the end, is its failing.



What can you do? Mashable describes how to reclaim privacy on Fracebook (more here). I tried the privacy scanner it recommends, but it stalled part way through. You could quit Facebook - certainly many people are trying to find out how to quit - but others are not ready to quit. But if you want to delete your account, there are good instructions online. But be prepared for some not so subtle manipulation.

But maybe it's just that we are sharing willy-nilly. OpenBook, which draws attention to the information Facebook makes public about its users via its search API," shows how people are just blurting things out without regard to consequences.

Facebook is fighting back. This puff piece in Mashable tries to get the message out there. "In the social media space, Facebook is like family. You may not always agree with your family, but at the end of the day, you trust them to have your back."

And, in the end, Facebook has a bit of a point. Leaving the question of its corporate ethics aside, Facebook could certainly make the point that these and even more revealing details are being shared on the open web anyways, and once shared, are out there permanently. Maybe so, but as Alan Levine points out, Facebook doesn't share. Once information goes into Facebook, it doesn't come out - unless you pay for it. As Frances Bell writes, citing Tony Hirst, "Ah, but you're not Facebook's customer. Advertisers are their customers. You are the product they're selling."

Sites like MySpace and LiveJournal are the tip of the iceberg. What do you think you're sharing with your Google custom search or supporting with all those 'utm' data bits attached to links in your Feedburner syndication service. It's what Apple is trying to rein in and control on its own site (perhaps even partnering with Facebook). Sharing is rampant. So the message shouldn't be, "Teach Facebook." The message should be, teach web literacy. Because you - as a product - are being bought and sold pretty much everywhere in the commercial web.

I don't know whether our society is capable of dealing with this without going over the edge into some sort of fear-of-disclosure frenzy. Overall, I think sharing is good, and that the people who lose it over "I hate my boss" messages should get over it. Transparency is good; it fosters responsibility. And in time, we will be able to manage our identities, and choose always whether or not to surf privately. I don't want to counsel a generation that they should practice misrepresentation and deceit. I don't want to teach them not to post because they're afraid. And you can't get away from the disclosure anyways. But they should exercise some caution, and practice some discretion. You have to live like a celebrity, knowing there are cameras everywhere. Take some care in what you do, and what you say, and don't leave yourself exposed to the underworld that may be out there.

But that was always sensible advice, wasn't it?
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