Facebook, privacy and Dumbf*ckgate

Posted on May 26, 2010


This is a long, wordy, ranty one I’m afraid. Here’s the haiku summary

Facebook are evil
Does Monkey have an answer?
Nope. Hasn’t a clue.

Online privacy has been the hot topic online for the last few weeks, with Facebook and Google both coming under fire. Facebook has messed with users’ settings one too many times and been bitchslapped with a backlash, while Google generated a global ‘WTF?’ by leaving a packet sniffer running in the German Streetview car (and storing the data it had ‘mistakenly’ collected in a big box marked ‘Mistakenly Collected Data – File under M for Mistakenly – FAO Mistakenly-Collected Data Clerk”). This post was going to be about both companies, but it was getting ridiculously long so I’ve kept it to Facebook. The Google one may follow one day.

I don’t know how other people came to Facebook but for me it was like a Myspace for adults that didn’t make your eyes bleed. I joined a couple of days after it opened to people without a .edu email address, just to look around, but I didn’t really use it for a year two after that for the simple reason that very few people I knew were there. As with many social websites, it needed a critical mass before it was useful.

Facebook reminds me of the wishing wells in suburban garden centres – the shop only has to fill a fancy bucket with water and people start throwing money into it, almost as a hard-wired response. Facebook puts out a bucket and we scramble to fill it with ever more information about our activities, our relationships, our families, our cultural consumption – not to mention our farming methodologies – and now all of a sudden, some of us are starting to think twice.

I’ll confess that I’ve completely swallowed the Facebook pill and always knew that I would. I love being able to keep in touch with my 80-odd ‘friends’ with quickie one-liners, links or comments on photos – it’s the perfect medium for men in an age of geographically distributed relationships. Few of us will think to sit down and pen a thoughtful email to someone we haven’t seen for a few years, but if we can add them on Facebook it’s just so easy to touch base. Whether it’s a birth announcement or a link to a lolcat, you’re connecting with people.

As it’s grown, it’s become what you could call a succubus site: it’s seductive and it feeds off your desire for contact, but at the same time it’s utterly disinterested in you. I don’t have a huge problem with this – Facebook doesn’t hide the fact that it’s a commercial entity and therefore, under the economic mores of the age we live in, its sole purpose is limitless, aggressive, mindless growth.

It hardly needs saying that Facebook’s growth has been phenomenal – 400 million users, etc. It’s slowly, insidiously replaced a handful of other forums that I used to use because everyone on them is now on Facebook, and I know from my own experience and from what I’m seeing in forensic jobs that Facebook has made email and MSN chat obsolete for a lot of people. I love the internet and spend a lot of time on it – I’m a lot cooler online than I am in real life (I’m going to paraphrase that and put it on a t-shirt) – and Facebook has provided a very good platform for mostof the online part of my existence.

So what’s the problem? We gladly provide all this data to Facebook and they’re obviously in it to make money. It’s no secret that personal data is a valuable commodity, so are we being naive when we complain about Facebook exploiting it commercially?

Their recent changes seem to have two thrusts: to make public as much of your online life as possible, and to allow other companies access to your data.

I feel strongly about the first point: the only Facebook information of mine that I want accessible to non-friends is my name, city and maybe a photo, so that people can find me on the site. This week Facebook asked me to confirm a load of my info including all the things I’ve ‘Liked’ in the past, as well as fan pages, favourite movies, books, bands, location, employer, job title, home town et cetera. It advised me that all of this would then be made public, so I unselected them all. It then told me that doing this would delete the information I already had – so the choice is either make it public or don’t have it. OK, I deleted it all and I admit that I was furious with the attitude Facebook was showing. Facebook has a history of regularly changing its look ‘n’ feel and, it seems, using these changes to reset users’ security settings so that it ‘defaults to the social’, in Facebook’s words.

According to Mark Zuckerburg, people are annoyed because Facebook has ‘missed the mark’ in thinking that users wanted more granular controls. I don’t think that’s true, and if he’s allowed to make unsubstantiated guesses about what’s annoying people, then so am I: I think people are annoyed because Facebook are weaseling with the privacy controls, resetting them every time a critical mass of users has had a chance to restrict public access, and they’re sneaking the changes in under the pretences of an interface lift or a range of new features.

This does nothing for the users and everything for the advertisers who pay Facebook’s wages. ‘Defaulting to the social’ is bullshit – call it ‘defaulting to the revenue stream’ and people might at least respect your honesty even if they don’t like what you’re doing. Facebook has decided that it wants to open up profiles, and it’s trying to sneak it in regardless of what the users want. This attitude isn’t really surprising after the revelations of Dumbfuckgate.

This is a personal bugbear of mine: no one seems to tell the truth once they get past a certain level of success. I think one of the reasons is because in a large organisation every decision is made by committee or outsourced, and every public utterance comes through the Voice of Oz rather than from the man behind the screens, so there’s no personal responsibility and there’s no need to maintain eye contact while you lie, dissemble and deceive.

Facebook started out as someone’s personal project, and Dumbfuckgate was probably one of the last honest acts it made. Zuckerburg was absolutely right in that chat session: why the hell should we trust him with our personal data? As Facebook grew we probably gained safety in numbers – I’m less reluctant to give my data to a site with 400 million members than to one with 40, because with 40 you can be pretty sure that the staff with database access are going to have a good mooch around your life during a hungover Monday. A Facebook ‘insider’ recently revealed that Facebook staff regularly mooch around strangers’ data for nosiness or lolz. What’s that, Skippy? Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely? Ya don’t frickin say!

Zuckerburg has said that ‘In the coming weeks, we will add privacy controls that are much simpler to use.’ That’s interesting and I look forward to seeing it, but if a button that minces a kitten gets a fluffy cover on it, it’s still mincing a kitten when pressed. OK, Facebook’s array of privacy controls is a mess (and I think that their whole access control infrastructure is a mess, due to incompetence rather than conspiracy), but I don’t think that people are angry about that – they’re angry that Facebook keeps pushing their data out in to the public domain.

Are these easier controls going to actually offer us more privacy? That’s the issue I really want answered. The dissembling is pretty basic: A fuss is kicked up about issue A, Facebook wring their hands and say how sorry they are, and they’re really listening to us, they just need help and prayers to get back onto the straight and narrow, and they promise that they’ll sort out this nasty old issue B that we’re all so het up about, honest guv’nor, swear down, of course we care about Issue B, it’s very important to their core values. C’mon, Mark – you’re only 26. Where’s your idealism, FFS? Aren’t you a bit young for chowing down on Satan’s warty member?

The recent backlash in the press against Facebook has been interesting largely because it throws up the question of alternatives, and it quickly becomes apparent that there aren’t any. The names of a few alpha-release services are bandied about by the BBC and other sites, but nothing that we could all defect to. Twitter is a one-trick pony, Myspace still looks like a 14 year old’s web design project from 1998, Linked-in is useful but boring.

“How about pulling out completely, Monkey?” I hear you ask. “Are you frickin mad?”, I reply. Once this box has been opened it can’t be closed! I need my friends’ status updates, and their photos, and the whole giddy maypole that we dance around. We just need somewhere to store our data that isn’t evil, andI think that Facebook is definitely starting to fit that description (not in the metaphysical sense, just in the diluted, ironic webby sense. I doubt that they actually summon demons or anything).

For what it’s worth, I blame it all on greed. Facebook want to release our data because there’s money in it for them, and with the userbase they’ve got, it’s biiiiig money we’re talking – board member Marc Andreesen (remember him?) said in 2009 that ‘if they pushed the throttle forward on monetization they would be doing more than a billion this year’. Well, that’s all very nice and call me a filthy pinko commie bedwetter, but…WTF do you want billions for? What are you going to do, build a house out of diamonds? By all means earn lots of money for yourself and the people who work for you, but do you have to turn yourself into a soul-sucking prick to do it? You can only buy so many helicopters, fellas – why not tell the advertisers that you’ll only go so far with data sharing, and that’s just the way it stands?

Will this media backlash hurt Facebook? I’d bet that it won’t. So far the real ire has been pretty much restricted to the twittering classes of the tech commentators, who no one pays any attention to. Although it’s been picked up by the BBC and other news outlets, it’s a passing story to them and to most of their readers it’s just tomorrow’s chip wrappings. My guess is that Facebook will be very contrite and humble for a while (sorry they weren’t more subtle, that is), then revert to type.

I’ll stop now. Well done if you’ve read this far, and I promise that the next one will be lolzy.