Privacy, Facebook, and the Web

Shawn D. Sheridan's picture

There’s been a lot of chatter over the past couple of weeks around Facebook, privacy, and just what should it all be about anyway.  As with so many things, there is the spin, and then amongst all the noise, there is some fact.

Facebook would have us believe that the changes that it has made over the last while are just in response to “changing norms on privacy”.  Per Facebook’s founder Zuckerberg, “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.”

Interesting spin.  Now for a bit of fact.

The reality — as reflected in various pieces of passed legislation globally — is that privacy is not getting “more open”, but rather tightening.  Want proof?  Well, check out the report from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, PIPEDA Case Summary #2009-008, Report of Findings into the Complaint Filed by the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) against Facebook Inc. Under the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, by Elizabeth Denham, Assistant Privacy Commissioner of Canada.  Let me give you the skinny — it’s not in Facebook’s favour.  And Facebook is capitulating now, trying to make out as if it was all innocent, they were just trying to respond to what they thought people wanted, and so on, and so on.

And by the way, that's not an isolated case.  Just do a Google search on privacy court cases against facebook.  From California to Canada, Rhode Island to Texas, and a few over-seas, people, courts, and regulators are not happy about "that social norm... [evolving] over time".

Go figure.

I'm not convinced that Facebook made an 'honest goof', was having "growing pains" as they put it,  or was merely responding to 'changing norms on privacy'.  After all, Zucherberg had a reputation for being ardent about privacy.

Why the about-face?  Money.

You laugh?  Hang on... there are 350 million people on Facebook... with all their information... preferences, what they listen to, what concerts they go to, what products they buy, what they eat, what the like, what they don't like, what their political persuasions are, what kind of work they do, their gender, age, sexual orientation, where they go on vacation, what they've been doing in their garden, how their dog is...  You don't think so?  What did you name the last photo album you created for the vacation you just took?  Check out the wall posts of your friends and look at it from a salesman's perspective.

I think Facebook is taking an approach of, "Let's just see how far we can push this so we can sell information and make money."  After all, there is money to be made in your information all over the net.  And at the end of the day, that is really what it's all about.

So getting past the indignation, the rancour, and the spin and centrifuge from the defenders, it kind of comes down to a simple scenario. 

Facebook isn't there as a altruistic service to humanity.  It's there to make money.  And there are those who would contend that our neighbours to the south are far less scrupulous in making money than perhaps other parts of the world. 

When you "sign up", you accept the terms and conditions, which, by the way, contain a clause that says Facebook can change its mind (and thus the terms and conditions) at any time, and there is nothing you can do about it, because you said, "OK, sure" when you briskly clicked that little check box.  And so they can decide at any point in time that it's the right time to sell your information to whomever wants to buy it.

Now, Facebook has to put on the appropriate show of responsiveness for good P/R, but in reality, they still are driven by profit.  So don't think it'll all be OK and we can all sleep safe and sound.  I'd wager Facebook has many clever people looking at how they can get around Elizabeth Denham's report, and other such condemnations.

Facebook of course isn't the only organisation like this; it's just the current lightening rod.  I was out to lunch (hey... no jokes!) with a colleague, and he confessed to me how uncomfortable he was after he Googled himself.  There was a lot of information available to the public eye about which he was surprised.  He had nothing about which to be embarrassed, but he was nonetheless taken aback.

So the moral of the story is summed up by something that I have said many times to people about eMail (and the web is no different) — "Don't put anything in an eMail (or on the web... even that you think may be 'private') that you wouldn't write on the back of a postcard."  And be alert to opportunities for organisations with which you associate to publish information about you.  If you don't want that, don't assume they will automatically know and comply.

We live in an age where there are powerful tools that can help us, and also significantly expose us to unwanted intrusion, discrimination, and hardship.

Our advice at ClearlyByDesign is to be thoughtful with what you publish electronically, whether it be on Facebook, LinkedIn, Blogger, your own WordPress site, or your corporate website.  At least with sites you control (such as the ones that creates for our clients), you have control over what is published, and visible to the public eye.  With other sites (such as Facebook), you are at the whim of those looking to make a buck off of you.  That is the price you pay for signing up for the "free" services, so don't be fooled.  Nothing is for "free"



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