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net.wars: Little black Facebook

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 20 December 2009


Back in 2004, the Australian privacy advocate and consultant Roger Clarke warned about the growth of social networks. In his paper Very Black 'Little Black Books' he warned of the privacy implications inherent in posting large amounts of personal data to these sites. The primary service Clarke talks about in that paper is Plaxo, though he also mentions Google's then newly-created Orkut, as well as Tribe.net, various dating sites, and, on the business side, LinkedIn.

Wendy M Grossman

The gist: posting all that personal data (especially in the case of Plaxo, to which users upload their entire address books) is a huge privacy risk because the business models for such sites are still unknown.

"The only logical business model is the value of consumers' data," he told me for a piece I wrote on social networks in 2004. "Networking is about viral marketing, and that's one of the applications of social networking. It's social networks in order to achieve economic networks."

In the same interview, Clarke predicted the future for such networks and their business models: "My expectation would be that if they were rational accumulators of data about individuals they wouldn't be caught out abusing until they had a very nice large collection of that data. It doesn't worry me if they haven't abused yet; they will abuse."

Cut to this week, when Facebook – which wouldn't even exist until two years after that interview – suddenly changed its privacy defaults to turn the service inside out. Gawker calls the change a great betrayal, and says, "The company has, in short, turned evil."

The change in a nutshell: Facebook changed the default settings on its privacy controls, so that information that was formerly hidden by default is now visible by default – and not just to people on Facebook but to the Internet at large. The first time I logged on after the change, I got a confusing screen asking me to choose among the privacy options for each of a number of different types of data – open, or "old settings". I stared at it: what were the old settings?

Less than a week after the changes were announced, ten privacy organizations, led by the Electronic Privacy Information Center and including the American Library Association, the Privacy Rights Now Coalition, and the Bill of Rights Foundation, filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (PDF) asking the FTC to enjoin Facebook's "unfair and deceptive business practices" and compel the company to restore its earlier privacy settings and allow complete opt-out, as well as give users more effective control over their data.

The "walled garden" approach to the Net is typically loathed when it's applied to, say, general access to the Internet. But the situation is different when it's applied to personal information. Facebook's entire appeal to its users is based on the notion that it's a convenient way to share stuff with their friends that they don't want to open up to the entire Internet. If they didn't care, they'd put it all on blogs, or family Web sites.

"I like it," one friend told me not long ago, "because I can share pictures of my kids with my family and know no one else can see them."

My guess is that Facebook's owners have been confused by the success of Twitter. On Twitter, almost everything is public: what you post, who you follow, who follows you, and the replies you send to others' messages. All of that is easily searchable by Google, and Tweets show up with regularity in public search results.

But Twitter users know that everything is public, and (one hopes) moderate their behavior accordingly. Facebook users have populated the service with personal chatter and photos of each other at private moments precisely because they expected that material to remain private.

Mind you: Joseph Bonneau at the University of Cambridge noticed last May that even deleted photos didn't always remain private.

You can understand Facebook's being insecure about Twitter. Twitter is the fastest-growing social network and the one scooping all the media attention (because if ever there were a service designed for the butterfly mentality of journalists, this is it). The fact that Tweets are the same length as Facebook status updates may have led Facebook founding CEO Mark Zuckerberg et al to think that competing with Twitter means implementing the same features that make Twitter so appealing.

Of course, Facebook has done this in a typically Facebookish sort of way, in that the interface is typically clunky and unpleasant (the British journalist Andrew Brown, once commented that the Facebook user interface could drive one to suicide.) Hence the need for a guide to reprivatizing your account..

But adding mobile phone connections is one thing; upending users' expectations of your service is another. There is a name for selling a product based on one description and supplying something different and less desirable: bait and switch.

It is as Roger Clarke said five years ago: sooner or later, these companies have to make money. Social networks have only two real assets: their users' desire to keep using their service, and the mass of data users keep giving them.

They're not charging users. What does that leave as a business strategy?


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).