Saturday, April 24, 2010

Take My Life, Please: Why the Privacy Mavens Have Got Facebook All Wrong

I just got in a mild dust-up with a couple of friends over a mix of privacy and functionality issues having to do with Facebook. I thought I'd respond in a forum where I had enough space to make an actual argument.

It all started when a journalist friend posted a link to this page about turning off Facebook's new Instant Personalization service, which links your profile information to external web pages, such as Pandora. I expressed a 140 character version of the sentiment that, while I really love the way librarians have stepped up as our society's guardians of free thought and other kinds of information independence, I find a lot of the sky-is-falling sentiment surrounding information sharing on social networks to be pretty overwrought.

I use Facebook a decent amount. I find out about a lot of social events, particularly concerts, through friends posting them on Facebook. In fact, without it, I would have a hard time being involved in Iowa City's experimental music scene at all, since outside of FB that information pretty much passes from hand to hand, and I don't spend the kind of energy it would realistically take to pay attention to those channels. I also enjoy checking up on my friends, who live in all corners of the U.S. and the world, and some of whom I haven't seen face to face more than once in four years. This includes seeing stuff they're interested in, such as links to music and other cultural ephemera on the web. It helps create the cultural common ground that we don't get from television anymore.

I can well understand the source of worries surrounding Facebook information sharing, since I'm using it for what it's designed for – sharing quite personal information and connecting to people I know personally. This isn't necessarily stuff we want available to the general public. But privacy worries over Facebook make less sense the longer you look at them, revealing points where the noble endeavours of the Electronic Frontier Foundation become, in my opinion, a breed of self-importance bordering on paranoia. Here's what gets under my craw:

  1. Facebook is Not a Public Service. Facebook owes you nothing, not even a modicum of privacy. To the degree that they give you any privacy, it's because it makes the service itself work – for example, making entire profiles publicly accessible would destroy the sense of social connection that it relies on. The idea that Facebook should protect our privacy as a general principle confuses and weakens arguments for privacy on the Internet as a whole, and arguably directs energy away from Net Neutrality debates, where a genuinely public resource is being threatened in some very scary ways.

  2. Big Brother Doesn't Care About You. Some worries about information sharing seem to be driven by the sense that advertisers and corporations are going to do something nefarious with your Pandora playlists and favorite books. But the whole point is that this information allows ad services to be automated, as in, no human ever sees it. For someone to go in and cherry pick that information and somehow use it against you individually would require some serious motivation on the part of one or more individuals inside these organizations, who were willing to risk their own jobs and futures to somehow harm you. If that were the case, you can bet they would be able to do it without knowing what your favorite movies were.

  3. Your Business is Already in the Street. Some might counter the above with a dystopian scenario where the government wanted to use profile information against Facebook users. But wait a cot damn second – is this really where any power-mad despot would go to find out incriminating, secret things about citizens? Think of the alternatives – medical records, library records (already compromised), school records, police records (including potentially suppressed/expunged portions). All of these contain information potentially MUCH more damaging to any individual than what's on Facebook. We have a relatively robust set of institutions that protect against information abuse in other areas of life, and I can see the value of extending similar protection to the 'net (particularly surfing records more generally – see above point about the internet as a public service), but if you're organizing an armed rebellion on Facebook? Buddy, that's on you.

  4. Noone's Forcing You to Use Facebook. If you're really worried about the Corporation invading your mindspace, why are you on Facebook in the first place? Go live in a cabin somewhere. It may seem like a necessity for modern life, but if you were really as pissed off by privacy matters as you profess to be, one might think you'd be willing to miss a couple of viral youtube videos.

  5. I Enjoy Contemplating Things I Might Purchase. Can we all just get over ourselves long enough to admit that online targetted advertising is occasionally useful? I think it's particularly apropos that Pandora is one of the first on the list to work with Facebook. Obviously, Pandora as a company are out to make some money, but they're doing it by providing some profound benefits to music fans, and some real efficiencies to the music market more generally. The service works so well that I'm glad to give them some insight into my tastes, even if part of that deal is that they pass the information along to a third party once in a while.
I don't want to go overboard – there are obviously potentials for abuse, as in any other realm of information. And in general, I think moving forward cautiously is a good strategy. But on a personal level, I don't really feel that way at all. I'm willing to tell the whole world quite a bit about me, and to be blunt, my greatest fear isn't that someone will use that information, but that they won't. If you want to be served by robot butlers, you have to be willing to tell them which way you want your eggs scrambled.

Postscript: In the course of all this, a corollary argument emerged about the relative value of Twitter and Facebook as platforms, in which I found myself defending the latter against some open-ended but strongly felt criticism. This post has gone a little long, so I'm going to address this latter in a second post that'll go up tomorrow.

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