North Wind And Sun

Amherst Bytes: Facebook: Protecting Your Privacy and Selling It, Too

Originally Published in the Amherst Student on 24 FEB 2009

Last week, shortly after the collective Facebook populace exploded in a rage heard for the Internet equivalent of eight light-years, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg stood up at his gold-encrusted e-podium and assured his country that they should not be alarmed. “Our philosophy,” Zuckerberg wrote, “is that people own their information and control who they share it with.” Facebook, Zuckerberg was essentially saying, is really just a middleman.

Folks, naturally, were skeptical. The tweaks that the Facebook crew had secretly made to the Web site’s terms of service (TOS) were enough to spark a rash of petrified Facebook users to purge their Facebook accounts of any and all potentially damaging information. Many believed that the new TOS suggested that Facebook would hold a perpetual license over users’ information, even after users deleted their accounts. Moreover, with the already-existing TOS giving Facebook the right to sell that information to third parties, many were concerned that Facebook was well on its way to selling more than just demographic information. Since, in the strictest sense, images and video are also considered information, Facebook also had the right to sell bits like profile images to advertisers. Imagine, for a second, Facebook selling an image of you holding a Budweiser for Budweiser to use in an advertising campaign. The possibilities for this kind of marketing are endless.

Facebook, unsurprisingly, denied that seizing ownership of users’ information was ever their intention. The reasons for the change, Facebook maintained, were in the interests of users. Zuckerberg’s logic was that Facebook should operate like e-mail: When you send an e-mail to a friend, it remains in your friend’s e-mail account, regardless of whether you delete your own e-mail account. The idea, Zuckerberg argued, was to make the TOS more consistent with the nature of Facebook itself.

But what Mr. Zuckerberg was sadly unable to explain was in what crevice he was hiding Facebook’s business model. For a website with 174 million users, Facebook is really crummy at turning over a profit. Like its younger sibling, Twitter, Facebook has had quite a difficult time transforming information and social networking into pesos, and their attempts to do anything that might even be perceived as leading to profit are frequently met with all sorts of unfortunate reactions. Facebook has already long been in the business of selling information to third parties for the (relatively) benign purposes of advertising and marketing. Their logic? By selling your information to advertisers, Facebook believes it is doing you a favor, exposing you, via advertisements, to all sorts of things that you had no idea existed. Facebook, you see, is looking out entirely for you.

Facebook also rightfully notes that, by selling your information to advertisers, they in turn are able to keep the site running. Zuckerberg has long maintained that Facebook is not about turning over profit and that it exists solely for the users. It’s an admirable sentiment, of course, but Zuckerberg’s saintly tendencies are more at home in the charters for an NGO, not a multi-million dollar company.

But, here’s the deal: Facebook is a free service. Last time I checked, Facebook didn’t ask for a credit card number when I logged in, hence why Facebook’s users aren’t considered customers. Moreover, Facebook users really do have to ask themselves whether access to the free Facebook service is enough to justify surrendering a bit of privacy. Either Facebook does a bit of information bartering or starts charging users for access; we can’t have it both ways. Facebook right now is operating on investors’ hopes that Zuckerberg and crew can one day turn the Facebook monster into cash, and, until that happens, we are likely to see quite a number of similar TOS tweaks aimed at accomplishing just that.

Or will we? In the wake of the TOS fallout, the Facebook crew committed themselves to changing the nature of the TOS itself, enlisting user participation to aid them in making future tweaks. By making the TOS more transparent, Facebook hopes to create a TOS that can make everyone happier. The list of user demands could not be more straightforward. First off, users don’t want their information shared with third parties. They also demand that Facebook surrender its right to user information as soon as users delete their content. As far as the TOS itself goes, users want it written in clear, Creative-Commons inspired language and would like Facebook to inform them of TOS changes before they happen rather than after.

That Facebook users, none of which pay a dime to the service, are making demands of Facebook strikes me as more than a bit strange, but as a sympathizer for the type of privacy security that so many people are advocating, I can’t help but appreciate what they are trying to accomplish. Many social networking sites are wrestling with the same issues as Facebook: What is the real nature of information ownership on a social network? At what point does my and your information become our information? It’s hard to be sure anymore. But I bet you five drunken pictures and half-a-billion status updates that the question won’t be answered anytime soon.

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