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Benjamin Russell

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Thursday, May 06, 2010


Paper Tiger with Virtual Teeth

FLICKR: Facebook Window StickerSo, I got a letter from Facebook yesterday. A real paper letter, in the mail, signed (with a pen, not by a pre-print computer image file!) by an actual human being. Since the Belmont High School Library has an FB page, the gentleman at Facebook corporate headquarters was hoping that I would spend money to use any of their various tools to increase my number of visitors, fans, hits, and pageviews. To encourage this, they sent me the cheerful sticker on the left and a coupon for a push banner ad to make non-fans aware of the page.

This is obviously self-serving. It's dressed up in very accessible business rhetoric, as more activity is equated with more involvement, better dissemination of key information, and a greater emotional investment on the part of the patron. But if I get more activity on the library's FB page, Facebook gets more ad views and more revenue. They would probably classify this as a "win-win", but one might notice that while this means that they win and that I win, you aren't included in that victory pairing.

In fact, those who are conspiracy-minded or simply concerned about corporate excess may have noticed for some time now a regular stream of news articles that have appeared in technology and business sections about Facebook's series of missteps with regard to the privacy of its users. (The Fake AP Stylebook recently summed it up nicely: "It is no longer necessary to write new stories about Facebook privacy issues; just change the dates." Google apparently tweaks its website 550 times a year, and they don't get this sort of outcry.) While users tend to respond to each change aesthetically ("Bring back the old layout! I hate the new mini-feed!" etc.), the changes have always been a steady march toward two simple things: 1) increasing the number of users so that advertizers have an attractive pool of recipients, and 2) increasing the ways in which a user in this ever-enlarging pool can be commoditized. Facebook doesn't care about you beyond whether you have a sufficiently pleasant experience so that you'll keep coming back. And, considering that a recent study has shown that teens grow anxious and depressed when asked to abstain from social networking for even a weekend, you are likely going to come back.

Some of you may remember the kerfuffle last year when Facebook changed their Terms of Service. "Terms of Service" is the long, written-in-legalese document that you're supposed to read and never do before clicking the box that says, "I have read and agree to the Terms of Service." What most people who had read the ToS already knew was that despite any illusion you might have had that what you put up on FB was "yours", the truth stood in silent disagreement. Because the servers that host your pictures and your posts and your notes and your personal data all belong to Facebook, all the content that you saved to those servers does as well. Even if you cancel your account. So any pretense that it's "your" account is, frankly, farcical.

Screencap by www.itbusiness.caAnd because you checked that box, "your" data can be used any way that they like, including their new plan of integrating your FB content onto other websites, like online newspapers, Pandora, and Microsoft. And unless you specifically opt out of this service, your content is available to these associate websites, and opting out still allows your friends to see your profile information. Again, not because it's what you wanted or what you asked for, but because you've been commoditized.

This has even gone so far as to inspire the U.S. Senate to request that Facebook simplify their privacy controls so that users are actually aware of what information they are and are not sharing. Facebook's practice of providing your information to partners and vendors, and then allowing you to restrict it is at odds with privacy rights groups' feelings of best practices, but I remind you... it's not your information anymore, anyway. Once it's on Facebook, it doesn't belong to you. And they can use it in any way that they want.

You don't have to go so far as to respond to this by canceling your Facebook account; the library certainly plans on continuing to maintain its fan page until such time as it becomes dangerous or stupid. But, as it is Choose Privacy Week (as sponsored by the American Library Association), the library thought that we should do what we could to inspire you to mull these issues over. Social networking is fun, and it feels more fun the more content you put online, as it generates more responses from more friends and acquaintances. But unless you are really in control of that content, we want to make you more aware of some of the ramifications of that fun. Don't be a tiny piece of data, a commodity to be traded and sold between major corporations. If you're going to share your identity online, make sure you do it safely, privately, and on your own terms.

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