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by Prasad Krishna last modified Apr 02, 2011 01:41 PM
Facebook used to be our playground but privacy concerns are now souring that fantasy. Why do we trust a clutch of new corporations with such phenomenal amounts of personal data?

The age of privacy is over, Facebook’s fresh-faced founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg declared a couple of months back. Social norms have shifted. We are now used to living out loud. “When I got started in my dorm room at Harvard, the question a lot of people asked was, ‘Why would I want to put any information on the internet at all? Why would I want to have a website?’” he said.

That paranoid past is behind us, claimed Zuckerberg, justifying Facebook’s controversial new decision to fling open the curtains and make maximum visibility the new normal. “In the last five or six years, blogging has taken off in a huge way, and (there are) just all these different services that have people sharing all this information,” he said.

In other words, get over the stage fright. Everyone else is out there over-sharing, arguing, preening, and generally acting out online.

In June last year, Facebook sneaked in a feature called the Everyone update. This makes it much like Twitter, and also allows it to share with and sell information to search engines like Google, Bing or Yahoo. “Facebook’s privacy changes are relevant as it tries to compete with real-time search on platforms like Twitter. It does give you an option to work around that though I am certain the whole process of setting privacy preferences could be a lot more intuitive,” says Sidharth Rao, digital industry watcher and CEO of internet marketing firm Webchutney.

On the surface, the new Facebook settings are better and much more malleable, if you can figure out how to work them — you can now choose, per post, what you want different sets of people to see. They have eliminated regional networks which would unwittingly expose you to an entire city sometimes (meaning that not everyone who is on the Delhi network, say, has automatic access to your information if you are in Delhi). But on the other hand, the default setting that Facebook recommends is deeply problematic. You, your profile picture, current city, gender, networks, and the pages that you are a “fan” of are all “publicly available information”. Earlier, you could make sure only your friends saw the rest of your friends — now, that option no longer exists as a setting.

Wasn’t privacy once a Facebook fundamental? Unlike the seedier environments of Orkut or Myspace, Facebook grew out of a small Harvard community, expanded to cover other East Coast schools, then conquered companies and countries. In September 2006, Facebook opened registration to anyone with an email address. But it was extremely cautious about how it engineered interaction. In essence, you were meant to socialise with people you already knew.

“It felt safer. It wasn’t about random people sending you scraps and stalking you, like on Orkut or whatever. Facebook reflected my real world. It kept you loosely, comfortably connected to so many people”, says Nomita Sawhney, a young Delhi-based architect. Unlike the threat of cyberstalking, intimidation, and impersonation that stalk less selective networks, Facebook remained clear of what media scholar Danah Boyd calls ‘stranger danger’. Only two years back, Zuckerberg told tech blogger Marshall Kirkpatrick that privacy “is the vector around which Facebook operates”.

I Like To Watch


Why are these changes such a big deal? Zuckerberg’s claim about privacy rings true for most unself-conscious Facebookers. After all, only recently, bra colour status updates were the big buzz on Facebook, ostensibly in support of breast cancer awareness. Now, it’s doppelganger week, where you tell the world what celebrity you most resemble. You can take dippy quizzes, remember birthdays, discuss the news, giggle over pictures. Grim warnings about corporate avarice and government spying sound faintly ridiculous in this pleasant context.

Social networks and blogs have certainly reconfigured privacy. Anyone who’s spent time on Facebook knows the impulse to meander through the pages and pictures of people in that amorphous category called ‘friends of friends’. In just a few years, we have got used to the thought that our lives are externalised and sprawled out for near-strangers to see.

In fact, Facebook is now the largest photo site in the world. When you join Facebook, under its Terms of Service, you give it a “license” (that is, legal permission) to use your content “on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof.” It takes some effort to realise how recent all this is, that it’s still a great unfolding experiment, and that we are granting these companies fabulous power.
In his recent book, The Peep Diaries: How We’re Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors, cultural critic Hal Niedzviecki describes the digital glasshouse: “Peep culture is reality TV, YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, MySpace and Facebook. It’s blogs, chat rooms, amateur porn sites, virally spread digital movies of a fat kid pretending to be a Jedi Knight, cell phone photos — posted online — of your drunk friend making out with her ex-boyfriend, and citizen surveillance. Peep is the backbone of Web 2.0 and the engine of corporate and government data mining.”

Web 2.0 was the clunky name for a whole range of liberating personal expression platforms — from Flickr and Youtube to Livejournal and Facebook. These companies provide the space and you bring the party. They encourage you to feel right at home and treat these platforms like your lounge, confessional or salon. Meanwhile, they also collect and refine data about you, and often wield it without your awareness.
In its over-eagerness, Facebook has blundered into several privacy minefields before this—when it first introduced Newsfeed, pushing a steady stream of your friends’ status updates at you, it embarrassed and annoyed many. Boyd compared it to the experience of shouting to be heard at a party, when the music abruptly stops and everyone else can suddenly hear your careless small talk. Of course, it turns out Zuckerberg was right when he told users to “calm down and breathe”, and Newsfeed has been naturalised into the Facebook experience. Another, more scarring experience was Beacon — its attempt to track what users in the US bought on partner sites — and tell on them to their friends. After an avalanche of protests, Facebook backed down and modified the ad platform. It even employs a chief privacy officer to address our fears.

In the early days, Facebook generated awkwardness because it didn’t respect context — the fact that you wear and cast off selves depending on who you’re interacting with, your crazy roommate or your conservative grand-aunt who decided to befriend you online. “It is the problem that arises when worlds collide, when norms get caught in the crossfire between communities, when walls that separate social situations come crashing down,” writes Chris Peterson of the University of Massachusetts, who has studied Facebook’s privacy architecture.

But now you can tweak settings and set up differential access. People have figured out how to work Facebook and not get burnt. “Profile pictures flatter, tagged pictures shatter,” says Priya Singh, a twenty-something law student, with a laugh. “You never know what someone’s going to put up and who’s going to see what. I don’t want everyone to see drunken party pictures, and so I’ve just learnt to place family on a new level of privacy settings.” And that’s the general pattern on Facebook: most people have learnt to adjust to the public glare, after some initial blinking and bemusement.

Privacy from Whom?


You can segment your social world as minutely as you like, but that doesn’t mean your life is any more private. It’s not just the fact that potential employers can scan and dismiss you, or current employers keep tabs — though such stories abound. For instance, MIT’s Gaydar research project discovered that you can identify a person’s sexual preferences by studying who their friends are on Facebook, even if they have avoided sharing that information in their profile.

But perhaps we have been gulled into thinking that the whole privacy fuss is about each other. “It’s very clever of Facebook to foreground this aspect of control. Your other friends, pictures, the games you play — that’s something we regularly give out anyway”, says Nishant Shah, director of the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society. “But Facebook is not a single entity — it is a collection of third party apps (applications) that we have no control over. A simple birthday calendar can harvest all your data, all your online traces and you grant it access without knowing it,” he says. So Facebook makes a big show of protecting you from your acquaintances, even as it sells your information continuously.

This becomes a much bigger possibility when it comes to search engine integration, which allows the open flow on Facebook to be harnessed for perfect reach and recall.

To get a clearer sense of what’s at stake with these influential corporations, take a more powerful example: Google.com. Every day, we confide our trivial confusions, our deep doubts to one willing ear. And these billions of broken questions can add up to an eerily accurate picture of the world. But do you search Google or does Google search you? “Google can track you across applications: email, search, blogs, pictures and books read. That means they can profile you in a very detailed, exhaustive way, and they do,’ says Rahul Matthan. “They never delete information, and they’re getting progressively more intelligent about you, as they make search more relevant with features like Google Suggest.” As technology scholar Siva Vaidyanathan puts it, “we have to realise that we are not Google’s customers. We are its product. We are what Google sells to advertisers.” These behaviourially targeted ads are the most perfect, evolved form of advertising so far and in concept, the least annoying, because they are customised to you. Google has promised that its information is utterly secure and that search logs are anonymised after a certain period.

It provides limited disclosure of outside ads, lets users manage the categories that Google has assigned to them and tinker with it for a more accurate picture and also provides an opt-out option. But Search 2.0 is a scary beast — it can also facilitate social control and surveillance. Your online activities are not scattered across applications any more, Google can hear what you tell Facebook.

While selling us stuff more efficiently is probably a good thing, what happens when this intimate knowledge shades into active surveillance? Even if we live in countries where rights are respected, “we give out enough personal information in an innocuous way to a single repository. They are sitting on top of a very valuable resource, and all this information can easily be reverse-engineered to reveal specifics about you,” says Rahul Matthan, technology lawyer and founder-partner of Trilegal.

In India, we are even more oblivious to such stealthy watching. “Privacy concerns here are lesser than in the West, where they’re so dependent on digital ID. There, if someone impersonates you or overdraws credit limits, it could affect your house, your job,” says Matthan.

Privacy legislation doesn’t really exist in India — the right to keep personal information confidential has only been articulated as protection against state action. “There’s no easy legal recourse to being thoroughly spied on by a company,” says Matthan (Europe has enforced data protection directives since 1984 — you can control what information is gathered about you, and how it is used. While the US has somewhat diluted laws, personal information is still strongly guarded). While it’s tempting to think that you have nothing to hide, you are acceding to a set-up where outliers can be identified and dealt with. Privacy matters, no matter how unexceptionable your own life. So what’s to be done? “Holding Facebook and other companies to account is crucial. We must set up legislations by which people can look back, ask exactly what about their activity is being tracked. They have to treat consumers as peers,” says Shah. “If Facebook can gaze at us, we must be given the right to gaze back at its functioning — it has to be a peer-to-peer relationship.”

So far, Facebook and the Googleverse and Twitter are still our friends and enablers. But as they amass more and more power, it is better to see them as fallible companies rather than confidantes, and to make sure that they account for our information. 

For original article on the Indian Express




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