11 May 2010

Facebook privacy drama

On TechCrunch, Paul Carr pretty much nails the Facebook situation.

Yes, Facebook’s privacy “promise” has been steadily eroding. However, the problem isn’t that Facebook has given up on offering privacy. Rather, the problem is that Facebook initially sold people on the myth that they could fill the Internet with personal information and magically expect that it would stay personal. I don’t know whether that was a deliberate bait and switch, or simply naïvety on the part of its founder.

I use Facebook as a dumping ground for interesting links, and for random chatter with friends. I also re-post content there that’s posted publically on other sites: postings like this from my own web sites, photos from Flickr, videos from YouTube, and status updates from Twitter. I have my phone number and address on Facebook, because those are public information; I don’t go out of my way to show them to people I don’t know, but it wouldn’t be a disaster if Facebook did so.

That’s the way I’ve used the site from the start. It’s a handy aggregator of content and place to chat with friends. I’ve never seen it as a secure, trusted place to put sensitive information. Free web sites are never places to trust with confidential personal information. If you don’t own the web site, you don’t own the data and you don’t decide the policy. That’s a simple fact, and a principle so old that it has an ancient saying associated with it: He who pays the piper, calls the tune. Or in today’s terms, he who pays the bandwidth bills sets the terms of service.

I’ve seen people say that it’s time to abandon Facebook for some kind of alternative. What, exactly, would that look like? One person mentioned an old-fashioned unarchived mailing list, but everyone has so much storage these days, who bothers to delete mailing list traffic to prevent it being archived? Chances are, one or more people on the list will use Gmail, and all the content will be available to Google, indexed and ready for leakage.

I know I plug this book way too often, but everyone who lives a lot of their life online should read The Transparent Society by David Brin. Facebook may be the most visible agent of transparency this week, but what we’re really seeing is a fundamental shift driven by technological change in general, not by any specific organization. Participating fully in society is pushing people to be more and more transparent, whether they like it or not. Putting on a tinfoil hat and refusing to put any information on the Internet is no solution either–all it means is that the only picture of you that searchers will get is the picture everyone else projects–like your enemies, for example.

If you don’t like Facebook’s market dominance, that’s a fine reason to move your content elsewhere. I don’t particularly like that Facebook has such a horrible API and offers no useful Atom feeds; it’s basically a giant box you can put stuff in to but can’t get it out of. I’d move to an open alternative, and I wish Google had done a better job with theirs. In their ham-fisted way, Google were more honest with Buzz: they gave you no privacy to start with. The problem was, users weren’t ready for that, and Google shoved Buzz into a place where people expected privacy and had some reason to do so–their e-mail accounts.

So I don’t think privacy concerns are a good reason to ditch Facebook; rather, they’re an indication that you’re probably viewing free social web services inappropriately to start with. But if someone puts together an open alternative with a sensible UI, I’m ready to move. How about it, Google?

© mathew 2017