Privacy In The World Of Social Networks

I guess that you couldn’t miss the recent story about Facebook’s new update. One that connects your data posted on their social network with the other sites all over the web. One that caused automatic change of privacy settings for all members. If you had any doubts, that wasn’t a bug in the system, that was a deliberate action that opened the private data of 350 millions of people to the rest of the Internet; search engines, archives and data sniffers included.

So what? – one might ask. Well, call me old fashioned but I do care that my private things stay private, and that it is me who determines what is private for me. That is the exact opposite of Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt’s thinking that

if you have something you don’t want anyone to know maybe you should not do it in the first place.

What an interesting way to think. 

Imagine somebody putting a bug into your phone and transmitting your conversations via local radio station, saying that if you have something private to talk you should not use the phone. Or better, that if you have something to keep private, you shouldn’t talk about it at all. Crazy? Yes. And illegal, too. It would be a matter of days before the radio station would be closed and some people face serious criminal charges.

But phone is not the same as Facebook or any other social network, somebody might say. True, phone is more like e-mail or private messages on a social network. Guess what, those are intercepted and even censored on Facebook as well. Apparently, Facebook will block your private message if it contains something like a link to The Pirate Bay and give you an explanation that some Facebook users find your message abusive. It will not tell who are those users, how they can reach your private message and why should they care about the content of your private conversation which they are not a part of, though.

Now imagine that in the middle of a phone conversation censoring beep sound cover your words because something or somebody calculated that you shouldn’t be talking whatever you do talk at the moment. Or the line simply hangs with operator’s prerecorded voice telling you that “some of the content of your conversation is reported as abusive by other telephone users”. Not by your friend that you are talking to, but some other, unknown people you have never met and that, by any means, have no right to eavesdrop your phone line.

But this is going much further than illegal censorship.

big brother is watching you

captured by Julien Houbrechts

Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg was glad to inform us that the world is changing, and that we don’t think of our privacy as we did years ago:

Doing a privacy change for 350 millions of users, it’s not a thing that lot of companies would do, but we viewed that as a really important thing, to always keep beginner’s mind, to think what we would do if we were starting the site now. And we decided that these would be the social norms now and we just run for it.

Don’t you just love when somebody decides what we should all think and simply do something for you without asking how do you feel about it?

Telephone line is considered more private than a social network, so let’s imagine a really public place. Let’s see what happens if you bring a friend to a cafe to have a chat. While people at the nearby tables can hear what you’re talking eavesdropping is considered rude but it’s not illegal. Depending on the situation it might be even a part of cafe networking.

You are aware of that and you don’t really mind if somebody is eavesdroping while you’re talking about the last night’s party. But then comes the more racy part of the story, the one where you leave the party with that handsome person and all that followed. That part is for your friend’s ears only. So you get closer and lower your voice to keep the juicy details out of the range of the nearby tables. But no! There is a microphone on every table, picking your story’s best part. And, like that is not too much already, the conversation is made public for the rest of the cafe and connected to information about what drinks you’ve ordered and a candid photo from the bathroom.

And if you say something about it, cafe manager will tell you that the times have changed, that he has decided what are the new social norms and that you see privacy of your conversations, drinks and bathroom activities differently now. Of course you do. In the next step the content of your pockets will be searched and made public as well as your underwear. Dammit, why would you get that Victoria Secret if you don’t want the whole world to see it?


  • paypabak writer

    Your analogies are spot on! Bless you for making the issue so abundantly clear.

  • Thank you. Every time I write about these things I feel like why would I do it, everybody knows it and are dead bored with it. Your comment gives encouragement. 

    BTW, next one is a sequel. And then the possible solution comes. 

  • Keep on the good work, Gandi :)

  • Will do ;)

  • How very true!
    But, what would be the solution?
    Collective action, everybody abandoning FB (and Google, come to think of it)?
    Create a pettition?
    Initiate judical process?
    Create a FB initiative? :)

  • Actually, Electronic Privacy Information Center and 14 privacy and consumer protection organizations filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, charging that Facebook has engaged in unfair and deceptive trade practices in violation of consumer protection law. Though this is hard to be enough to put the world beck in order.

  • If you’re interested, there are alternatives to Facebook in the works. For instance, Diaspora ( has been getting a lot of press in the last few days, if only because they’re working on an open-source model and building privacy into the design. It’s still vaporware, but they’re getting some significant funding, mostly from people who are pissed at Facebook.

  • Don't know, but to me it all looks like one huge party, and on the party the party-maker decides on the rules of the party (dress code, costumes, music that is going to be played or not, games to be played…).
    So, if you don't like the rules set by the party-maker – leave the party!

  • Vaki, I know about Diaspora. Actually, the next post (as the end of the series) will be about it :)

    Trescherix, that is true, but there is a bit of difference between a party and a communication service. Also, whether I am one the party or not, I can raise a campaign against it if I find it being socially irresponsible. :)

    If there was a TV manufacturer that makes TV’s with spying microphones one could say “well, don’t buy that brand”. And it’s true, but you can bet that law would be involved pretty soon. The point of this post is to show that we forgive social networks much more than we are ready to forgive the other, off-line, services. And we are making some very dangerous precedents.

    The last but certainly not the least, one can’t leave this party. Not only that the process of deleting the account is a race with thousand obstacles, it never deletes the user’s items from the server. All the data, photos and videos included are still there and they are still publicly available!

  • I’m looking forward to the follow-up, then, dandellion. I agree with you.

    A point to consider: legally, we have a right to privacy only where society is prepared to recognize that our expectation of privacy is reasonable (not trying to get into a debate about whether or not we have an actual right to privacy in what we post to Facebook, just making the point to get to my next one). It not only sets dangerous precedents if we ignore the way Facebook attempts to tell us that everything is default-open and we have no privacy on its system, it also begins to slowly change the cultural zeitgeist: as we, as a culture, begin to accept the default-open position from our services and expect less privacy, then legally, we may /have/ less protection, because society will be less willing to accept that a given expectation of privacy is reasonable.

    And /that/ is dangerous.

    Okay, no more pontificating.

  • You're absolutely right. And that change of cultural zeitgeist is precisely what new media moguls want. At the present state they have money, but for the power, real power like TV corporations have, they need much more.

  • Yes. It’s exactly as you said in your comment on ten years ago, nobody used their real names on the web. But it was in corporations’ best interest to have that information, so the trend miraculously changed.

    You’d think by now societies would have learned to ask “Cui bono?”.

  • NO, they'll never learn. *bangs the head against the keyboard in despair*

  • Pingback: Let’s Go To Diaspora | Freethinking Out Loud

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