Zuckerberg didn’t kill privacy

It’s easy to blame Facebook for our reveal-all culture. The harder question is: why do we willingly reveal so much?

Theresa Clifford

Topics Science & Tech

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Question: ‘Why did Facebook go public?’
Answer: ‘They couldn’t figure out the privacy settings either.’

I’m sure you have heard this joke already; it has been doing the rounds for a few weeks now. And yes, it does seem ironic that the day Facebook went public, lawyers in America filed a $15 billion lawsuit against Facebook accusing it of privacy violations.

The class action consolidates 21 related cases filed in more than a dozen states in 2011 and early 2012. The $15 billion itself is loosely based on the Wiretap Act which lets people sue for $10,000 if someone records their conversation without permission. This act provides statutory damages per user of $100 per day per violation, up to a maximum of $10,000 per user.

The lawsuit relates to the revelation in September 2011 that Facebook was improperly tracking the internet use of its members even after they logged out of their accounts. Apparently, Facebook placed cookies on users’ computers which told the social network which websites they visited. Under Facebook’s own policy, it promised not to do that and thus violated the limits of its users’ consent when it did.

According to some reports, the lawsuit highlights Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s long history of using his hacking skills to ‘steal’ people’s personal data. The complaint opens by reproducing this instant-message exchange between Mark Zuckerberg and an unnamed friend:

The issue of privacy is a continuing problem for Facebook. Its revenue model is based on making as much information as possible about people visible and available to advertisers. Much of the post-IPO discussion has centred on whether Facebook, as well as the companies that underwrote the IPO, misled investors about the problem it faced with monetising advertising on mobile platforms. And as a public company, Facebook now has to grow its advertising revenues very rapidly, putting itself under considerable pressure to collect more and more user data to help it target its advertising services.

Facebook has faced a barrage of criticism over the last few years in relation to its privacy controls and policies. Last year, for example, a German data-protection agency expressed concern about Facebook’s use of facial-recognition technology for tagging photos and threatened to fine it for unauthorised data collection. And regulations being considered by European privacy authorities could cause Facebook’s business model to ‘implode’. Zuckerberg is facing increasing pressure to improve the privacy settings on Facebook and, a week before its IPO, Facebook announced that it was letting its 900million-plus users vote on changes to its privacy policy.

However, despite the lawsuits, criticisms and warnings, most Facebook users do not seem to be too concerned and are still happy to share their data across a number of social technologies, using their Facebook details to log into various other sites. According to a recent poll, 59 per cent of respondents said they have little faith that Facebook would keep their personal information private – nevertheless, Facebook keeps on growing and people keep on sharing personal information.

Most of us understand that to really gain from the benefits that new technology can bring, we have to accept that we are handing over a great deal of personal information to private companies. Personalised computing is now the norm. For example, we understand that the smartphone we bought with location-based services needs location data for those services to work.

With the advances in technology, the line between what we consider public and private information has become increasingly blurred and many contradictory attitudes and practices co-exist – often within the same individual. While in some contexts we readily give up our privacy, in others we seem increasingly anxious to protect it. For example, we often use the same password across multiple personal accounts and reveal masses of personal information about ourselves on social-networking sites; but we are also extremely paranoid about data collection, online transactions and identity theft.

Social technologies like Facebook have impacted on what we consider to be private and public spheres. Sherry Turkle, professor of social sciences at MIT, makes some interesting points about this in her book, Alone Together. Based on interviews with hundreds of children and adults, she describes our new, unsettling relationships between friends, lovers, parents and children, and the new ways we understand privacy and community, intimacy and solitude. We now fear the private sphere and the space it allows us for self-reflection and self-exploration, preferring to ‘share’ everything in the public sphere.

This is a worrying trend, because we need the private sphere in order to develop a sense of self. However, we cannot blame new technologies for the way our notions of public and private have been transformed or for our growing tendency to make a public show of private behaviour. Collectively, we have allowed the erosion of privacy as a social value. And we have embraced the increased publicisation of our private lives. Unfortunately, we now live in a world where the voyeuristic reveal-all culture of celebrity gossip and personal ‘confession’ dominates.

Privacy used to be regarded as a supreme virtue in our society. Today’s casual dismissal of the private sphere denigrates one of the most important sites of human experience. Indeed, the separation of the public and private spheres has been essential for the emergence of the modern individual. Maybe it’s time to shift the debate on privacy away from digital-data collection and improper tracking and towards the question of how we can begin to renew the notion of the private sphere as something worth defending.

Theresa Clifford is a director of NZ digital agency Cucumber and is based in Auckland. Visit her personal website here. Follow her on Twitter @TheresaClifford.

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Topics Science & Tech


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