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? Total: 841
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Re: Special Report: Facebook and Privacy

Great set of links. Thanks for aggregating them together.

I think the way to fight invasions of privacy is much the same as the way to fight piracy: make doing the right thing the path of least resistance. For piracy, that means making the download, purchase and view experience better than downloading a movie using Vuze (which you can do in 30 seconds). That's why Spotify and iTunes are both doing well. For privacy, that means creating a private network (or federated set of networks) that are actively better than Facebook from and end-user's point of view.

Facebook is the world's most efficient peer pressure engine. The reason most people are on it is because all their friends are on it; it's not for any one feature or its overall user experience. It's free, and you can use it by checking it for ten seconds at a time while you're meant to be doing something else. Its new API makes life a great deal easier for people who want to build social features into their sites and applications.

That's a tall order to compete with, but it's possible. I wish the likes of Diaspora well, but their work is cut out for them. Meanwhile, I still believe that the places to start building a privacy-orientated, decentralized network are where something like Facebook can't safely be used: in education, in research and in enterprise environments. Those places are where interoperable Internet email took off, and I think they'll have a chance to lead the way here too. [Comment] [Permalink]

Re: Special Report: Facebook and Privacy

Tony Hursh, actually.

Not the first time I've been confused with Tony Hirst. Unfortunate that two people working in the same general area have such similar names. [Comment] [Permalink]

Re: Special Report: Facebook and Privacy

My apologies, Tony, I have corrected the reference. [Comment] [Permalink]

Re: Special Report: Facebook and Privacy

Not a problem, Stephen. As I said, this isn't the first time this has happened. :-)

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Re: Special Report: Facebook and Privacy

Thanks, Stephen, for the digest. @Ben Werdmuller von Elgg federated walled gardens is an interesting model. Would there still need to be a few "Pirate Bays" to act as hubs? Facebook works as a hub because "everyone" is there. A problem with the "old" Internet was that despite the egalitarian ideology of the pioneers, it was an elite network. But, like TV in the '50s, when comm tech goes massive, the common mass get exploited by new elites without an egalitarian ideology. This is the real dilemma of the commons, or as Zizek would have it, the communist hypothesis. [Comment] [Permalink]

Re: Special Report: Facebook and Privacy

@George I think that ultimately there would need to be some hubs, but they would work differently to Facebook in that if you're connected to any part of the network, on any hub or spoke or node, you're connected to everyone on the network. So just like email, everyone is there by virtue of you having a presence that interoperates with the right standards.

I agree that the problem exists as you state it - but it comes down to making such a system easy to use and full of the right sort of features. Nobody's going to flock to it because of ideology, but they might because it's useful and fun.

I proposed education, research and enterprise environments as starting points in part because they don't need everyone to be there - just the right people, with the right organizational support. Although by no means a walk in the park, that's an easier thing to achieve. And it reframes the problem as, "how can we make a useful tool that meets those peoples' needs?" [Comment] [Permalink]

Re: Special Report: Facebook and Privacy

I agree with the concerns about Facebook and I will be canceling my account and shutting down the groups that I own May 31.

The furor is a bit problematic, however. No shortage of band wagon jumping and sham outrage here. Dana Boyd is particularly galling when she complains about "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."

She claims her status as privileged and as a beneficiary of the attention economy. But is she suggesting that SHE actually know what is best for society and individuals or just for the privileged class?
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