June 6, 2010
Our privacy on Facebook has been steadily eroding but the networking site is so powerful many people find it hard to leave.
If you want to surf the zeitgeist, then look at the most common queries on Google. When I looked the other day, "How do I delete my Facebook account?" was fourth on the "How do I...?" list. Just to put this in context, number two was "How do I know if I'm pregnant?" You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to twig that something's up.
What's happened is that Facebook's latest tweak to its default privacy settings has sparked a firestorm. Four US senators have voiced their concern. Fifteen privacy groups have filed complaints with the Federal Trade Commission. On this side of the Atlantic, the EU's data protection working party has written to Facebook, saying recent changes that made previously private information publicly viewable by default were "unacceptable". And many online commentators, influential and otherwise, have joined the fray.
If you think that privacy is an abstract concern of EU bureaucrats and libertarians with too much time on their hands, then might I suggest that you consult youropenbook.org. This is an ingenious site which allows you to type in a search phrase. It then ransacks the publicly available Facebook "status updates" and displays what it finds.
A search for "I cheated", for example, brings up all kinds of intriguing stuff. A nice young woman from Baltimore posted "dam right i cheated i coulnt get it from u wen i needed it". There's also the odd potentially embarrassing reference to cheating in exams. A search for "I lied" brings up updates like "I'm sorry, I lied before when I said I used to make lots of bets. My therapist tells me I should try lying a lot to help get through my... gambling problem". Another writes "im not gonna bother anymore...theres no point hiding the truth.....iv lost too much and all because i lied to the one i love...im such a fukin dick head, i fucked up the best girl i've ever had".
I could go on but you will get the point. All of these people are instantly identifiable. Millions of Facebook users are posting embarrassing or damaging messages which can be read by the entire internet. My guess is that most of them think they are just writing to their "friends" because they don't understand how to fix their privacy settings and have simply accepted the defaults provided by Facebook. There's a trend here. Privacy on Facebook has been steadily, inexorably eroding. To track the erosion, see the timeline posted by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or a sobering animation created by IBM researcher Matt McKeon. What we're looking at is the implementation of a corporate strategy designed to maximise return for Facebook's owners.
The response of the company's PR flacks is predictable. Users are free to set their privacy settings, they say, and if people don't like what Facebook's doing then they can always leave. Nobody's forcing them to join the network.
On the face of it, both assertions are true. It is possible permanently to delete a Facebook account, but doing so involves quite a palaver and takes about a fortnight. A bigger problem is that because the service has become so ubiquitous, many users are discovering it's become essential to their professional lives. "Don't think I don't think about [leaving]," wrote one on her blog. "I don't like supporting Facebook at all. But I do.... The rewards are concrete and immediate. The costs are abstract and ideological. When I try to balance the two, the rewards win, but that is because of my friends and despite Facebook... Telling people with complaints to leave ignores the very real value of the networks they have built and what should be their right to continue those networks on the grounds on which they were built."
Welcome to Metcalfe's Law – the idea that the value of a network increases dramatically the more people belong to it. It's the same phenomenon that keeps people using Microsoft Office – not because they love the software, but because their professional lives would be impossible if they couldn't share Office documents with workmates.
It's one of the great ironies of information technology – that the aggregate effect of billions of free choices made by independent agents results in a kind of tyranny imposed by the winner that took all. We first saw it with Microsoft, and then with Google. Is it now Facebook's turn?