Public ≠ Property of Facebook: Another round in the Facebook privacy rigmarole

By | March 30, 2010

Facebook has one again issued changes to their privacy policy that is pissing people off. At this point, I’ve pretty much come to accept that facebook has no respect for their users, or their valuable networks, data, and attention they provide. There are a whole series of proposed changes, which are outlined wonderfully by TechCrunch and the ACLU, some of which sound positive and useful. However, it’s the really exploitative and heinous ones that have been getting the most traction.

At the center of this round of facebook privacy controversies is the new “enhanced pages” which allows third-party websites, approved by facebook, to access your public information and your connections — what you like, how you identify yourself, and who your friends are. In fact, Facebook will happily share with external websites of their choosing anything shared under your “everyone” option, which of course, is the default setting.

“Public” doesn’t mean “Property of Facebook”

This is the distinction that gets made again and again and again. “Public” is about sharing, about contributing and giving access to a larger community. Nowhere in the many definitions of “public” does it characterize something that can be taken from the public and redistributed to a select group for private profit.  Facebooks actions aren’t about making information public, they’re about making information theirs.

This is why in these cases, privacy can be a misleading battle-cry. The controversy isn’t just about access to our information and data. It’s also about our ownership of it. Much of the response-rhetoric whenever these privacy issues arise tends to be some variation of “well, if you didn’t want it shared, you shouldn’t have made it public.” In some ways, this is true, and it’s a deeper media literacy issue.

But in another way, this is total bullshit. It’s an excuse that conflates making something public to handing something over as property of Facebook to use and profit from as they like. There’s plenty of things I share with friends, and plenty I’m happy to share with strangers, but at the end of the day these are still my things — my networks, my data, my work and labor, my time — and I should have more control over who gets access to use of what. When I share my information, it still belongs to me in part, and I still have some say over it. What facebook is proposing isn’t sharing — it’s straight-up taking. It’s facebook claiming sole ownership over user data and pimping it out to the highest bidders.

In my white paper on Locating Value in Spreadable Media, I cite instances like this as indicative of a tension between economically-driven exchanges and socially-motivated ones. Facebook is thinking in terms of economic exchanges, which as discrete. It provides a service, users hand over data, and now they have the service and facebook owns the data to do with as it likes. However, facebook’s users believe themselves to be involved in a social exchange, which is ongoing. Social exchanges are like sending Christmas cards — you wouldn’t send 10 cards to someone and consider yourself covered for the next 10 years. The exchange is just a symbol for an ongoing relationship. In this case, that means users continue to contribute value so long as facebook continues to respect the relationship. The social exchange model makes more sense here, especially because the value being provided isn’t discrete. Facebook does have a lot of data now, but the real value in the data (and the attention provided by users) is that it’s ongoing, changing, and developing. So facebook needs to keep the relationship alive.

But how is it different from “spreadable” media

In the report on spreadable media that I co-authored with Prof. Henry Jenkins, Ana Domb, and Dr. Josha Green, we lauded the ability of individuals and communities to wrest control over content and meaning from producers. At the surface, Facebook’s appropriation of user data for their own goals echoes that of, for instance, fans remixing and sharing content to express their social relationships and tastes. But there’s one huge difference: facebook is in a position of structurally determined power in relation to their users. In layman’s terms, it’s simply this: Facebook’s acts are top-down, spreadable media is bottom-up.

As a bottom-up process, spreadable media operates through plenitude — any act of spreading doesn’t undo or prevent other acts of spreading. Spreadable media allows for differing opinions, motivation, and types of value. On the other hand, facebook sharing your data is an act of economic and institutional control — they determine who has access, and how, for everyone. This doesn’t leave room different forms of use and disregarding the diversity of user-motivations and social networks that make the facebook community as rich and popular as it is. In spreadable media, you can always add more content, more layers of meaning, more routes of circulation to reflect your goals. In Facebook’s approximation, you can believe their ideology about what the internet means and is good for, or you can just not participate. This kind of put-up or get out attitude is the antithesis of spreadable media, which is about creating more options, more meanings, more ways for people to shape and share their identities. Facebook is offering only one way — the one that makes them the most money.

Disrespecting Social Worth

Facebooks controversial changes are always opt-out instead of opt-in not because Facebook doesn’t know better. They know full well that it’s more respectful and responsible to make drastic changing involving sharing personal data opt-in. They make it opt-out because facebook hopes you don’t know any better. That is, they’re hoping to exploit anyone who may not have the knowledge or time to keep up on what their changes really mean.

It’s pretty clear from Facebook’s actions that they expect people to fall in line because they’ve become so ubiquitous. And it’s true — a lot of people will overlook the offenses because it’s just such a hassle NOT to use facebook these days. Some of my notifications started getting filtered into my spam folder without my knowledge a couple of weeks ago and I was amazed how many events and correspondences I missed, how many of my friend I unintentionally ignored. But there’ll be a limit. It may not be this, but it’ll be something and sooner or later, facebook need to start recognizing the value that their users are providing. They need to stop thinking of themselves as simply providing a no-cost service, and start considering the fact that they’re in an ongoing social transaction with their users, with implicit social contracts that have to be respected.

What’s more, with every move to unabashedly profit from their users without any consideration or respect, Facebook tips it’s hand — the more they scramble to make money off their users, the more they reveal to their users how valuable they are. And before long, many of us are not going to put up with facebook profiting off that value without valuing and respecting us in return. So, the bottom line: shape up facebook, and stop being douchebags. The party’s almost over.

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