Everyone is worried about Facebook

Suddenly, Facebook has become Big Brother.  Almost at par with Google.  Or perhaps even bigger, since most people still cannot quite understand how Google monetises our content.  While Facebook appears to have finally changed its rules of engagement one time too many, and everyone is currently taking a potshot, from the BBC to the Economist.  Mark Zuckerberg has just issued a statement saying Facebook moved too quickly and made a bunch of mistakes.

In my country, concerns about Facebook privacy have been exacerbated by a court ruling.   Last week, a 24 year-old got a fine and a suspended jail sentence for saying nasty things about the Pope on a Facebook page.  Inevitably, there are many in this wired micro-state who feel we are gently moving from the open Internet to a brave new world where the disruptive nature of web 2.0 technologies is about to be tamed by over-zealous magistrates clinging to antiquated Press Laws.  Others see this as the first important step in bringing online unpleasantness under control.

The privacy situation is still evolving, but the camps seem to be congregating as follows:

1. Facebook is like a utility, and should be regulated as such.  In this post and this post, Danah Boyd, an academic working for Microsoft Research, makes a compelling argument.

2. The issue is not privacy, but the fact that Facebook is trying to make a buck from something that is social.  Help will soon be at hand.  This post, by Venessa Miermis, rattles the cage.

3. Get off Facebook, get off the Internet, get a real social life.

4. It’s a storm in a teacup compared to the benefits people get from Facebook.  We just need to keep unchecking those privacy boxes.  And our kids will find a way of working it out.  Whether it’s Facebook, or some other social network which will end up taking its pace.

Today, I found this paragraph in a great book by the academic Mathieu O’Neil called Cyberchiefs.  It was published in 2009, so Mathieu does not have the benefit of hindsight:

“The traditional libertarian concern for privacy has its limits:  when it contradicts the profit motive.  For the exhaustive profiles listing people’s most intimate material, spiritual or consumer preferences – which they have themselves helpfully created – legally belongs to the owners of Facebook, and to the advertisers they sell this information to.  In informational capitalism individual users can freely copy and distribute digitised corporate content, and corporations can freely copy and distribute digitised user-generated content.”

It’s not like we haven’t been warned.

Whatever we choose to share online is public.

Whatever our friends choose to share about us online is also public.

Yes, whatever we write, film, record, do online can come back to haunt us.  It’s the public sphere, not some genteel living room.  In the old days, if you had an argument with someone, you could just walk away, lick your wounds and make up.  Now, the evidence of your conflict is permanent.  And possibly visible to others, who may have an interest in making that conflict public or permanent.

So go educate your kids.  Educate yourself.  Educate your judiciary.  Educate your media.  And educate your politicians, your rulers, your church, your friends.

And then, fight with all your energy, to keep the Internet open, and away from the grasps of those who may be in a position of power, likely to be less informed than you, or your children.  And who may start tampering with your basic freedoms in the name of doing what’s best for you.

It’s not like it would be the first time this has happened.  Or the last.

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