I did a panel at the Night’s Edge Cyberpunk conference last weekend about privacy and IP issues in the age of Google and Facebook. It ended up being a good summary of what I think is freaking everyone out about Facebook these days.
Anyway, since I have to write everything down or I’ll forget, I basically have a copy of what I said. Behold, for your reading pleasure, all that is fuct with Facebook:
one of the things i’m really curious about is the new and emerging social and legal challenges that arise from the popularity of sites like facebook. what’s so interesting about these challenges is that we are really still haven’t developed the social or legal mechanisms for negotiating or protecting our use of such spaces.
the most obvious of these issues is of course privacy. until recently, concerns about privacy primarily revolved around surveillance in public spaces or datamining, repurposing or even misuse of personal information being gathered by companies or financial institutions, such as for credits cards. when giving this information away, we often assume it will be used just to provide us with credit card services. we also have the sense that our information will be secure and private as we are sharing it with a reputable organization. when people started learning about datamining and identity left, i think we all became a little bit more wary about sharing our personal data.
now if you think about what we’re doing on facebook in this context, it seems a bit crazy. before we were concerned about other people watching us, or gathering or using our personal data wihout our consent. on facebook, we’re all giving it away freely and often with more detail than anywhere else. where else can marketers see where we live, our interests, our age, our contact details, our photos, work and educational history AND all the people we know? it’s like voluntary datamining.
i saw a blog comment the other day say that facebook was really a marketing platform disguised as social networking platform. and i think that observation is very apt. we all put in our details on facebook in good faith and we really don’t know what’s being done with it, or what will happen in the future. for example, facebook is introducing ads, much like gmail’s targeted advertising that are based on your profile content. would you have put in all your personal info if you knew that was going to happen down the road?
aside from marketing, facebook has not proven itself to be so great at maintaining users privacy. for years, facebook was only for college students and you needed a university email address to sign up to facebook. this gave users a sense of safety and that they would only be interacting with other students, or at worst, faculty. they could safely play on facebook without their mother or boss logging in and finding out. then, facebook decided it needed to grow its userbase so it opened its doors for everyone. suddenly, everyone’s grandmother, boss and ex boyfriend was using facebook and wanted to be your friend. its kind of like a bait and switch – you sign up because you want to interact with your university friends and then suddenly your profile filled with details aimed at your university friends, details that are not so appropriate for a professional context, are opened up to everyone.
this huge change to the service is not a surprise, given that the corporate culture at facebook does not seem to take the privacy of its users very seriously. just recently, it was discovered that facebook employees can see what profiles you’ve viewed. now this isnt some sort of feature that is required for their job and they are actively discouraged from using unless for work. no, this feature is actually presented as a job perk and employees do it for entertainment!
another concern with facebook is something most people don’t realise. facebook owns the intellectual property of everything you upload. so all those pictures you took, all the wall posts you’ve written, even the profile you created are all owned by facebook. i saw an IP lawyer talk about this very issue at web directions south a few months ago. he had gone through all the legal documents you are agreeing to when you sign up to facebook, and said it amounted to about 35 pages of text, single spaced in 8.5 font. he also thought the level of rights we are expected to give away when using facebook and similar services was wholly unreasonable and expected that the government might soon step in to legislate the area.
so after hearing all this, why aren’t we all leaving facebook?
the first answer is that the cost of non-participation is very high. ryan bigge, former editor at adbusters noted that non-use of facebook is almost the same as not-existing. and it’s kinda true, sadly, especially if you work in the web industry or are under 30 in a developed country. facebook as a mode of interaction for some people is more important than email or a phone. so it’s kind of hard to expect to people to opt out with such a high personal cost.
the other reason that people dont leave is that facebook is a captive community. if i decide i’m tired of facebook and i want to move to another service, i can’t take any of my profile content or friends lists with me. so, facebook maintains its dominance because no one wants to leave behind the profile that they’ve put so much time into.
in fact, as i recently found out, even just deleting your facebook account is a nightmare! you can deactivate on the site, but this doesn’t actually delete any of your content, and people can still tag you in photos or invite you to events. if you actually want your data gone, you have to email facebook. then someone will reply and tell you that you have to delete every piece of profile data yourself. every wall post, friend, image, note. everything. and if you’ve been on facebook for any period of time, this is a serious amount of work. and i’m pretty sure this requirements violates privacy laws somewhere, because facebook clearly the functionality to do it for you, but want to make it next to impossible for you to leave.
so, what can be done about all this?
some people are taking things into their own hands by creating fake accounts, so they can interact with their friends and still have a facebook, yet still protect their anonymity and know their personal data isn’t being misused. its believed that prince william uses a fake account this way. of course, facebook hates fake accounts because it undermines their value and actively deletes accounts they think are fake. In fact, it’s against their terms of service to use an alias.
more broadly, other social networking services are moving towards “open social networking”, such as google’s open social or people aggregator. the goal of all this is to give users ownership of their profile data and friends list by making them portable and interoperable. while this doesn’t necessarily solve the privacy issues because it could lead to your data more freely going all over the web across many services, it does allow users to easily leave a site if they are not happy. the growing coalition of platforms using open social – which includes Bebo, Friendster, MySpace, orkut and linked in – may be powerful enough to start pressuring facebook into shaping up.
Man, it’s so weird to think I used to be totally in LOVE with Facebook. But then we had to break up, because Facebook turned out to be a real asshole. The kind who stalks you, sneakily tricks you into giving him your stuff and then won’t let you break up with him. And even after you do break up, he’s probably still got all your MSN chats and naked photos which he will keep forever to potentially deploy at a later date for some unknown yet likely sinister purpose.