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article imageOp-Ed: It’s time to ask some hard questions about Facebook

By Michael Cosgrove     Nov 14, 2010 in Internet
People rightly question government access to personal data but they don’t seem to mind that a private company like Facebook controls more and more of their information and activities and drags its heels on privacy concerns. This is worrying.
It is being strongly rumored that Facebook will launch a limited version of what could turn out to be a fully-fledged email service designed to attack the market share of both Gmail and Hotmail, as the informal name given to it by Facebook staffers – Gmail Killer – openly implies. And as is usually the case when Facebook announces a new feature, there will surely be only a very small number of people willing to discuss the possibility of negative effects of Gmail Killer for online privacy and the possibility of the abusive use of online personal data.
That has been the case for Digital Journal for instance. Digital Journal does not have an editorial policy but you could be forgiven for thinking they did if you did a search on the site for ‘Facebook.’ Doing so would take you to hundreds of articles about Mark Zuckerberg’s brainchild. That’s only natural of course given the worldwide interest in Facebook and its constant evolution, but what strikes me about the vast majority of those articles is their implicitly complaisant content and their almost total acceptance of what Facebook is and what it does.
The vast majority of those articles are either on the recurrent ‘Facebook rolls out new {name of} feature’ theme or quirky stories about the abusive use of Facebook by stalkers, companies, and various nutcases, but you will find almost no articles which ask probing questions about Facebook’s ethical practices or privacy policies. Even the habitually hawk-eyed and ever-questioning Paul Wallis passed on the chance to compare Facebook’s use of data to that of governments in his most interesting article on US law enforcement and security agencies who wish to monitor online communications more effectively, although in his defense that wasn’t the main point of the article. He did mention though that “The instant howl {of protest at the US plans} was predictable...” But there are hardly any howls of protest at Facebook’s wish to control online communications.
In fact anyone who didn’t know better would think that both Digital Journal and its contributors were being paid by Facebook such is the prevalence of ho-hum routine reporting. They aren’t, of course, and neither are the rest of the world’s press and journalists, whose benign treatment of Facebook shows that Digital Journal is not alone in its approach.
Yet there are many reasons to be worried about the almost exponential increase in Facebook’s presence in our lives and the deeper implications of its stated aim, which is to be considered as not just a social ‘networking’ site, but a social ‘utility.’
One of the quickest ways of persuading yourself that there is something fishy going on with Facebook is to consult Wikipedia’s entry on Facebook controversy and consulting the many reference texts it links to. The list of issues is frightening. Apart from the well-publicized privacy concerns involving data mining and the sharing of user information without the users’ knowledge as well as account security, there has been controversy over censorship, advertiser concerns, the stealing of intellectual property, its terms of use, its policy of interoperability with other online services, the automatic disabling of accounts and blocking attempts to link certain press content to the site.
There are also worries about Facebook’s aim to become a dominant force in mobile phones, with concerns being centered upon developers using third-party applications to extract users' data. Another issue concerns the fact that Facebook users may, and do, upload their entire email address lists in order to find friends, which means that even those who are not on Facebook unwittingly submit potentially exploitable information about them to the site and that it is possible to create fake accounts in their name. The data-sharing row with Google has also caused a ruckus, with accusations that Facebook is very willing to exploit the data of others but will not reciprocate to the same extent, which helps to make it an almost obligatory place for advertisers to invest.
Facebook also has the world’s most popular photos product, the most popular events product, and will soon be heavily involved in the best-online-deals market.
In other words, Facebook is present everywhere but few people actually consider that there’s a problem with that or, if they do, they tend to dismiss the issues because they have been seduced by Facebook’s ‘friendlier and more interactive web’ sales pitch. Many people have persuaded themselves that having their personal details shared online is somehow “inevitable” and some go as far as to label Facebook critics as being “paranoid.”
But people should think again. Concerning the issues listed above, Facebook’s policy is and always has been knowingly dishonest. Here’s the well-oiled scenario. Facebook deliberately conceives and launches applications and features which they know abuse people’s privacy rights. Once complaints start flooding in they deny any wrongdoing to buy revenue time. Then, when the pressure gets too much – be it from users, advertisers, class actions or governments worried about the abuse of their data protection laws – they grudgingly “excuse” themselves for the error, trot out the usual line about reacting as soon as possible to address the concerns and explain their “errors” with vague and woolly phrases like “Our intention was to give you lots of granular controls” before finally accepting to implement a few minor modifications to the application or feature concerned. More pressure follows and they give a little more. And on it goes. It’s a perpetual game of hide-and-seek at which Facebook executives and PR specialists have become the masters and they only change when forced to.
Looked at from another angle, did you ever stop to consider who actually decides what constitutes the fair and honest use of your personal information on the Internet? It’s not the law, or government, but Facebook itself as well as other biggies such as Google. And what’s wrong with Facebook deciding? What’s wrong is that the companies – and Facebook in particular – who are informally deciding what can or cannot be done with your personal data are the very companies who make money from exploiting that same data, and the more data they can share, the more profit they make. This is particularly true in America, which has much less stringent data protection laws than many European countries. And most people naively accept this situation without giving it as much as a second thought.
The underlying implications of Facebook’s tentacular presence in our lives are potentially dangerous. Mark Zuckerberg’ executive bio on Facebook describes the company as “..a social utility that helps people communicate more efficiently with their friends, families and coworkers.” That apparently anodyne statement should have started alarm bells ringing from the moment he had it put online, but it didn’t. The underlying principle of a social utility is the assumption that its moral worth is determined solely by its utility in providing happiness or pleasure. This means that the moral worth of an action or actions - in this case Facebook’s actions and policies - is determined uniquely by its outcome, which in simple terms means that the end is more important than the means used to achieve it. And the end here is domination of the Internet and financial profit.
It is this touchy-feely lullaby approach which appeals to people’s sense of pleasure, and that explains the fact that although Facebook is regarded by its members as being one of the private companies with which they as clients are the least satisfied, (Facebook is judged to be almost as bad as the tax authorities and airlines,) they are still joining en-masse and neither they nor the press seem in a hurry to seriously question what is happening to their data, or how, or even why.
Now that is what I call an extremely worrying phenomenon.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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