Privacy in the Facebook Era
By Jeff Sayre
Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg recently stated that privacy is no longer a social norm. Is that an actual fact or a engineered fact?
Here’s why I ask. Over the past several years, whenever Facebook has made a change to its privacy policies, it has caused great uproar—not only with civil liberties advocates (as you would expect), but also with Facebook’s user base.
The recent brute-force change to the privacy settings of all 350 million of its users is just the latest in a series of moves that exposes more of Facebook’s users’ information.
According to the above linked article, here’s what Zuckerberg said about the recent change:
Doing a privacy change for 350 million users is not the kind of thing that a lot of companies would do. But we viewed that as a really important thing, to always keep a beginner’s mind and what would we do if we were starting the company now and we decided that these would be the social norms now and we just went for it.
That last statement, “we decided that these would be the social norms,” is the telling truth. It is not that lack of privacy has become a social norm. It is that Facebook believes that it should be.
It is as if Facebook issued a decree to its global citizens. Privacy is no longer something you should request. Privacy is not in the best interests of our society (as in Facebook’s “society” or corporate mission).
Exposing more of its users’ data to the world is, of course, attractive to Facebook’s business alliances. It offers a number of new opportunities for profit. To a company rumored to be heading toward an IPO in 2010, new revenue streams and growing profits are a good thing.
But open data and opening up of personal data are two different issues. What pieces of your data should be open? Where do we draw the line? In general, as long as they are not breaking any laws, I believe it should be up to individuals to decide which pieces of their personal data are made public.
In a free society, we should strive toward letting individuals, not governments or corporations, be in control of their personal data. Collectively society should “own” the data with individuals given control over a subset of their personal data.
There are compelling reasons why opening up personal data to the world is desirable. But it should not be up to governments or corporations to make that choice on behalf of their citizens and users. In a free society, it should be the citizens who drive the push toward more open data, not a few elite power players who force the issue.
What do you think? Is Facebook engineering the expectation of lack of privacy? Are they forcing the issue and making it become a social norm by brute force? Is this truly what their users want? What rights should individuals have to control their personal data?
UPDATE February 24, 2010: See my article A Flock of Twitters: Decentralized Semantic Microblogging to see how users can take control of their own on-line communication streams.
UPDATE March 19, 2010: As this year’s keynote speaker at South by SouthWest Interactive (SXSWi), Danah Boyd presented a very thought-provoking keynote presentation on privacy in social media: Making Sense of Privacy and Publicity.
UPDATE May 8, 2010: An interesting graphic depicting what I call the devolution of Facebook privacy.