Monday, 24 May 2010

Facebook 'Privacy' Coerces Public Lemmings

I have only a token presence on Facebook. It wasn't intentional, I wanted to create a Facebook wall for my sports club, but Facebook wanted info on me as an individual before I could create anything at all. I gave it as little as possible. Then got inundated by the kind of attention I normally call 'spam' when it's email.



I have worked for large corporations such as American Express and Virgin, specifically with the marketing teams. I know just what kind of data they treat as gold dust, how they use it to try to sell me ####. I resent telemarketing calls and junk mail on my doormat as an invasion of my time, which is short, and personal space, which is diminishing. It's bad enough when its a commercial organisation that's trying to sell me its' own ####. Facebook, however it becoming far more insidious.

It has precious little of its own #### to sell you. But it has shareholders and venture capitalists breathing down its' neck, with the same urging: monetize. It has the same dilemma in this web-two-point-whatever world, how to turn a profit on its' only asset - your personal profile data.

400 million users later, its a huge presence, a global brand. How does Facebook hang on to this exalted position, without succumbing to the same fate as Bebo (who?) or MySpace (sidelined to a specialist music and games niche)?

Go mainstream: permeate the web through social networking in a way that Google, as a search provider, can only dream. Facebook Connect, 'Like' buttons; link, collect, extrapolate, target.

The marketeers' instinct is of course, to exploit all that data. After all, it is commercially valuable to somebody. The pump is primed to spray it to the highest bidders. Destination unknown.

Which is why the row over privacy rumbles on month-after-month and Facebook's privacy policy changes seemingly week-by-week. Nobody fully understands the privacy controls. You can be as tight on permissions as you want only to find it's other people in your friend-circle whose lax privacy settings open up a complex set of data tunnels into yours.

Cynical or merely naive?
If you listen to Mark Zuckerberg's pronouncements, he would have you believe "that by connecting people he's changing the world... just connect!"

Meanwhile Facebook's aggressive strategy to outwit Microsoft and Google as 'the face of the web' largely entails it having effective control of your on-line identity. I would argue it is worse than governments storing records about you because (in theory) most Western democracies are at least accountable to an electorate. Facebook is a multi-national corporation, neither moral, nor immoral but amoral. It has limited accountability or liability under weak frameworks of national regulation. It is perfectly entitled as a legal entity to change its' terms and conditions (contract) with its' users at any time it likes and if they fail to spot the changes, understand them or action the complex options which follow, that is their problem. Your identity is in its' hands.

Jeff Jarvis on This Week in Google summarised effectively:
"Zuckerburg thinks that once it's 'public' it's PUBLIC. We made things in Facebook public only to A public, OUR public, the public that we control. In Facebook we control(led) who's in OUR public.." (the friend requests we accept or reject, the visibility or permissions we set). "In blogs we publish to the whole (world). The separation between THE Public and A public is the line that Facebook crossed."
 Jarvis imagines the dialogue between Zuckerberg and the Facebook user:
"You already made it public, its OK, I'll publish it to the world." 
"No its not, that's not what I was doing.
"Well I'm going to make it really complicated for you to decide what's public."
Facebook has lost, either accidentally or intentionally the notion of a difference between A public and THE public.

The PR material shows them to be tone-deaf to this and other concerns, blaming poor communication of Facebook's aims and objectives. According to Facebook's head of PR (New York times article), all they want is to connect and share, the corporation is "just doing a bad job of communicating what's going on." The apologists say if they were just being cynical, they would be better at it. Nobody said corporations are efficient...

And the problem is...?

Facebook is becoming the new Microsoft because of the weight of its' user-base and the current lack of  alternatives. Leave Facebook, you leave all your identities and connections behind. Assuming you can leave Facebook. You can de-activate an account, but touch one link or one 'like' button and it is instantly resurrected like Dracula. It's almost impossible to delete a Facebook account and more importantly the profile information that goes with it.

Noted Facebook defector Leo LaPorte goes further:
"There's a really insidious problem here. If you use Facebook at all, either as a public or a private persona, I'm coercing either my public or my friends into using Facebook because the only way they can interact with me is by joining Facebook... It's this coercion of social relationships; I'm coercing people I'm in relationship with into doing something I know is fundamentally bad."
He notes that even sophisticated users do not make the distinction between public and private; the younger generation publicly posts material which could very soon be not merely embarrassing but personally or professionally damaging. We are thoughtlessly posting details of our health, wealth, religion and politics assuming they are contained within our selected social circle. They are not.

What will the relentless commercialisation of this data do to us in the next stage of the Facebook saga?  RC

(Footnote: in my spell checker the suggested correction to Zuckerburg is 'bloodsucker'. I kid you not...)

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