On privacy, Facebook and the future of our information online
If privacy is outlawed, only outlaws will have privacy.
~ Philip Zimmermann
I never wanted to be on Facebook, in the first place. There, I said it.
I caved and joined Facebook on February 2nd, 2009. For the most part, I joined because (a) my nieces are on Facebook and I like having the opportunity to communicate with them in this social platform (b) a vast majority of my friends, academic colleagues and social media friends are on Facebook, and (c) now a lot of my family members are on the platform. It was kind of a no-brainer.
I resisted joining Facebook for years, as you can tell from all the posts I’ve written about Facebook. When I started becoming more involved in social media, I thought to myself “how much longer will I be able to hold off of Facebook AND still maintain a certain degree of respectability as someone knowledgeable in the field of social media”. I don’t feel comfortably preaching about the sociability and fit of platforms without actually testing them.
Was Quit Facebook Day a success or a failure?
Facebook has progressively eroded the privacy of users, and quite unsurprisingly, there has been a backlash. We all like our privacy, don’t we? At least, I do. But I didn’t quit Facebook. I recently read two very good posts from Tris Hussey and Rob Cottingham assessing the outcome of Quit Facebook Day (May 31st). A good friend of mine indeed, quit Facebook (and even before QFD was announced). I think my friend made the right choice.
On May 31st, reportedly about 30,000 people did quit Facebook (or so pledged). The QFD campaign not only raised awareness of the inappropriate way in which Facebook was handling privacy settings, but more than that, I posit the hypothesis that it pressured Zuckerberg and his team rethink how they were handling this issue. Zuckerberg has been, as most of you can tell, grilled and attacked left, right and center for his mis-management of people’s information, and for his position on privacy (i.e. that everything should be public).
Orwell, surveillance and who controls your information
We are rapidly entering the age of no privacy, where everyone is open to surveillance at all times; where there are no secrets from government.
~ William Orville Douglas
Many people worry about government surveillance, and how bureaucracies control citizen’s information. But Facebook is not a government agency, and it is not a regulated space either. It’s a free online social networking platform. One of the key issues here, being the word “free“. In the case of government agencies, citizens can pressure them and hold them accountable with their votes. In the case of corporations, citizens can hold them accountable with their money (making responsible choices and eschewing businesses that don’t respect their rights). But in the case of a free online platform, how can we make them accountable if we don’t pay for it. It becomes a sticky issue. You get what you pay for (or in this case, what you DON’T pay for). And the sad case with Facebook, is that it seems that, despite touting itself as a private social network, it seems as though it would be moving towards a business model where our privacy is protected by paying for it (EDIT – just discovered this great post by Shel Israel asking Zuckerberg to step down from Facebook CEO position, where Shel makes the point that customers/users should be first, regardless of whether you pay or not).
Facebook’s new privacy settings and the future of our information online
One of the biggest problems that I have with Facebook is that, from the start, it promoted itself as a private network where people would only have access to your information if they were your friends. By loosening privacy settings and allowing third parties to access people’s information, Facebook effectively stripped the users from the right to choose what information they share with the world. If Facebook touted itself as a non-private network in the free version and a private network in the premium version, I would not have a problem with that. Because then, those who choose to join a free version would be fully aware of what rights to privacy they are giving away when using a free network.
The problem comes when you are told that your information is safe and private and then you discover it is not. More than anything, the backlash against Facebook, I believe, is the perceived breach of trust. This reminds me of something that my friend John Biehler told me about Facebook, while we were having a Twitter chat – it’s a free service, you should expect that your information is not going to be private.
Twitter allows you to control who can see your tweets (by giving you the choice to protect them). But once you tweet, nobody stops somebody else who follows you from retweeting something that you might not want the world, but only your friends and followers, to know. These online platforms aren’t very good at giving the user the choice as to how much information they want to share with the world. So when I tweet something, I make sure it’s something I can back up and own up to.
Own your presence online, under your own terms and responsibly
After careful deliberation, I decided that I will continue to use Facebook as a free social networking platform, but I have made substantial adjustments to my privacy settings. In fact, I know that some people may not feel very happy that I haven’t accepted them as Facebook friends. Sorry. The thing is, I am (much as people see me as a public figure) in fact, a very private person. I’m private with my personal life, and I’m fiercely protective of my friends’ privacy.
I put a lot of content out there on the web, but I own the information I post (be it videos, photos, comments or blog entries). And by “own”, I mean, I am fully aware of what I post and what I don’t. I own my online presence in my own terms. I made a choice to be public, others should have that same right too. Because I have a right to privacy, and so do you.
In closing, if there is one recommendation I can make when dealing with Facebook and every other online social platform or space is – think about what privacy means to you and adjust your online behaviour accordingly. Don’t post anything you don’t want the world to know, and be aware that being private doesn’t mean you can’t have content on the web. I really enjoy how Derek says in a recent post that “he seems to have the online privacy instincts of a 17 year old” (read his recent post on Facebook, which is also noteworthy along with Tris’ and Rob’s). From what a recent Pew report indicates, it would appear teenagers ARE indeed more concerned with privacy than some older people are.
I believe in privacy, I believe in choice, and in the right to choose what information we share with whom and to what extent their privacy is maintained. Don’t expect Facebook or any other online tool to give you that right, but also, don’t let Facebook nor any other online platform strip you of that right either.