The latest social media kerfuffle is over news that some employers are requiring job candidates to disclose their social networking log-in credentials. (Shel Israel does an excellent analysis and summary of the fine points of this story, so I won’t do that here).
Foregoing a discussion about why employers would need this information, this is the kind of silly, panic-inducing story journalists (online and offline) are in love with. It’s the latest in a string of opportunities to cry out with indignation, “Look what they’re doing to us now!” and to then step forward and announce “They’ve gone too far!” (Remember how foursquare was going to help burglars know when you’re gone?)
I’m a huge advocate for privacy. I’ve written and spoken about it often. And while this particular story is not worth getting one’s knickers in a knot over, the pure-anti-social-networking luddites are ignoring our time-honored tradition of surrendering privacy. To quote my friend Scott McNealy, former Sun Microsystems CEO, “You have no privacy. Get over it.” In other words, we gave away certain rights to privacy a long time ago.
We already give employers our social security number, our driver’s license or passport number, our address, and phone number. We agree to a credit check. If we sign up for direct deposit or arrange a wire transfer, we give out our checking account number and ABA routing number. Companies are tracking every keystroke you make and every IP address you visit while at work. Some jobs require employees to submit bodily fluids for drug testing.
If you want to work in aerospace, the intelligence community, or the U.S. Treasury, you can bet they’ll know everything about you from the name of your third-grade teacher to the average number of squares of toilet paper you use each time.
We trade in information. That’s not new and it’s not a function of social media. The great Facebook password disclosure debacle is a straw man enabling the time honored Luddite tradition of crying out, “Watch out for that social media!”
And if a company wants to know about me through what I post on Facebook, I have a solution I could certainly live with. Recruiters could have authenticated company-sponsored Facebook accounts and candidates could be asked to accept friend requests from these recruiters.
Everyone’s talking about the launch of Togetherville, a social network designed to bring parents and their kids together with the goal of learning responsible social networking. Does it occur to anyone that children six to ten years old (Togetherville’s target) don’t need social networks, and to encourage them to use one is the antithesis of responsible social networking?
Katherine Boehret, in a May 18 piece on the Walt Wall Street Journal’s Mossberg Solution column, wrote that Togetherville is intended to ease parental worries about the perils of Facebook and other grown-up social networks:
“Togetherville offers young children their first taste of social networking like grown-ups, using their real-life identities (not cute avatars) and real-life relationships.
Togetherville smartly restricts certain online activities, but does so in ways that don’t make a child feel too restrained.”
Any serious adult user of Twitter, Facebook, or MySpace knows these sites are both social and anti-social. They encourage introverted behavior and the partial/total substitution of real world personal relationships with their online equivalents. Togetherville is also the Web 2.0 version of the Happy Meal toy. It is designed to deliver to marketers an elusive group of big spenders.
Children should be encouraged to read, write, paint, draw, take walks, think, play act, talk, be creative, be curious, be kind, be tolerant, question the established order, and respect others. These are things that are not learned by showing children how to upload video or add strangers to their contact lists.
Togetherville’s banner image. Note the “girls and their mother” are happy because they are outdoors in a green field. In other words, they are not using a social network.
I love that Mossberg Boehret says Togetherville doesn’t “make a child feel too restrained.” They’re meant to be restrained! There are dangerous people online who prey on children. Cyber bullying is a growing problem. Constrained chat is a gateway drug to unconstrained chat, which can lead to personal meetings. Why ease children into this process? The only goal is to make them comfortable chatting with strangers. My goal is to make my child aware of the dangers of speaking to strangers, in preparation for some day letting her make these decisions on her own. The age at which a child should be allowed to speak to a stranger anywhere in the world is different for each child, but I don’t think any child under 12 needs to be encouraged to do that.
The idea is not to teach them to use social networks. That will come in time. They need to be taught the importance of privacy and personal space, the value of real relationships, and to be aware of their own self worth.
My daughter is nine. The CD was pretty much gone when she was born. I’m no Luddite. She’s had three iPods. There is plenty of technology in this house. I work in the IT industry. BUT TECHNOLOGY IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR PARENTHOOD.
The responsibility for preparing children for sociological or technological change rests with parents. Whether our kids say, “Daddy, please please please can we go to McDonald’s?” because they want the Barbie toy, or they say “But mom, everyone’s on Togetherville,” we need to make decisions based on what we know about our children and what we want for them, and not simply roll over, saying “social networking is inevitable, so let’s get them going!” According to research from New Dream, “The nagging strategy is paying dividends for kids and marketers alike: 55% of kids surveyed said they are usually successful in getting their parents to give in.” The same survey also found “57 percent of children age 9-14 would rather do something fun with their mom or dad than go to the mall to go shopping.”
I like that Togetherville is at least thinking about this, because it will become a bigger and bigger problem, though I don’t think a great many adults understand “proper” social networking either.
But the introduction to social networking is not to say, “Look, sweetheart, social networks are cute, just like Hello Kitty.” Really, have we forgotten the lessons from earlier this month? Facebook, the world’s leading social network, trampled the privacy rights of well informed technically literate adults. Let’s not escort our children into that world prematurely.
Note: It was pointed out to me after I published this that the Wall Street Journal piece was written not by Walt Mossberg, but by Katherine Boehret, and edited by Mossberg. It appeared in a section of the Wall Street Journal online edition titled “The Mossberg Solution,” and Ms. Boehret’s picture was on the far right sidebar so I did not realize she wrote the piece. This has been corrected and I regret the error.
Sure you’re ticked off about Facebook’s abuses of consumer privacy, but does closing your account accomplish anything? It’s like getting a tattoo in a secret place. You have the satisfaction of the accomplishment and the knowledge you were in control, but does it have a lasting effect on the rest of the world?
Even if one million people closed their accounts, that would represent 1/4 of one percent of Facebook’s 400 million user base. It is statistically insignificant.
Facebook should not make it so hard to maintain personal privacy and should not make clandestine changes to its privacy settings. But we know they will, so until the climate changes, we need to understand the company’s stance, how we can protect ourselves, and how we can effect meaningful change.
Instead of closing your account, I suggest the following five steps which might be more effective in protecting yourself and in initiating lasting change in Facebook’s attitude toward privacy:
Become an Expert in Facebook’s Privacy Settings
Under the “Account” tab on the top right of your screen is a “Privacy Settings” link.
Read and understand the privacy settings, and adjust them to your personal preferences. Recheck every two weeks to see if anything has changed. For more in-depth advice on this, check out this article on Huffington Post (with a video) on “How to Fix Your Profile in Two Minutes.”
If you want regular updates, set up Google Reader or create a Google Alert on the words “Facebook” and “privacy.”
Know Your Rights as a Consumer
Follow the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on Twitter. There are probably more worth following. I have also created a Twitter list of Internet law and privacy experts. Visit the web pages of these people and organizations. If you’re in the EU, or do business there, visit the web site and download the “Data Protection Guide” that outlines citizen’s rights. Also, if you are really interested in all this, become acquainted with the EU’s Article 29 Working Party.
Read Facebook’s own Privacy page. Sure it has some corporate bias, but it’s a good source of information.
Inform Your Friends
Use Facebook, Twitter, and your blog if you have one, to inform others of developments in Facebook’s ongoing privacy saga. Share a link. Express an opinion. Pass on a tip about how to configure privacy settings. If you keep your Facebook account, and do these things, you’ll have much more positive impact on your community than you would if you quit. Here’s a link you can pass on: the EFF’s Six Things You Need to Know About Facebook Connections.
Contact Regulators With Your Complaints
The principle regulator of social networking is, in the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC has a complaint web site and system for collecting consumer input. In the EU, it’s probably the Justice and Home Affairs Data Protection group. I say “probably,” because I am not an expert in EU privacy law. If you know of other important agencies in the area of online consumer rights, please add them as a comment below.
Contact Your Congressperson
Contact your lawmakers and let them know you are fed up. In the U.S., write a letter to your representative. These people have much more influence than you or I do.
If you’re thinking about closing your account as a gesture, and doing so means a lot to you, go for it. I came up with these five ideas as a way for all of us to have a greater impact with about the same effort.
I’d like to hear from you. We like using Facebook or we wouldn’t be there. How would you bring about change in Facebook’s privacy policies?.
You have to wonder why the Obama administration isn’t hinting at a bailout for Facebook in the event that the social network’s latest privacy kerfuffle threatens the very vitality of the global poking grid. There are Facebook user protests and even predictions that this will cause a mass exodus of users and the eventual shuttering of Facebook as a going concern.
Seriously, does anyone believe that Facebook’s dominance (doubling in users from 200 million in April of last year to 400 million today, for example) is somehow threatened by this?
Here’s what’s going to happen. Already the EU and other parties have stepped up and notified Facebook that its recent behavior is unacceptable. But like a parent threatening to throw a teenager out of the house if he or she doesn’t “shape up,” these admonitions from the EU and other bodies have little long term effect. In fact, the EU warned consumers in January, 2009 that Facebook might compromise their privacy, but said nothing about the company’s obligations.
Regulators, ill equipped to deal with the new media new frontier, will make a show of protecting consumer interests. That’s not to say there are not smart people at the EU, FTC, etc. who want to do the right thing, but there are not enough people anywhere who understand the complexities of what Facebook is doing well enough to draft coherent consumer protections right now.
The company, perhaps for the first time in its history, recognizes that consumer (and regulatory) outcry requires a response, and today held a Privacy All-Hands Meeting. But ultimately, what will change? Facebook will issue a watered down explanation — it won’t be an apology. It will back down on a few missteps, tweak the privacy settings, and update its privacy agreement. And it will be damn sight more careful the next time it adjusts its privacy settings, which, in essence, are the setting for the company’s ability to generate advertising revenue.
Here’s what’s not going to happen. I think it’s highly unlikely that Facebook will be fined. Regulators are still mostly uncertain as to how current laws apply to social media/networking. And that’s not a slam. Now that Facebook has released its Open Graph Protocol for example, which allows, among other things, developers to add a Facebook “Like” button to their blog or web site, who is responsible for privacy as it pertains to the use of that Like button? The web site owner or Facebook? You now have the intermingling of functionality, the blurring of ownership, and the competing interests of two potentially responsible parties with nothing that resembles a contractual agreement.
There will also be no new privacy protections enacted in response, at least not this year. Public outrage at the latest affronts is greater than ever before, but that is because more people know and use Facebook than ever before.
Remember Microsoft’s anti-trust problems? In June, 1990, the FTC launched a probe into allegations that Microsoft and IBM were colluding to corner the PC software market. The FTC deadlocked, and the Justice Department took over in 1993. In 1994, Microsoft signed a consent decree agreeing to not use its dominant position to squelch competition. Short version: that action took four years to culminate, and did not harm the company’s long term viability. There have been numerous other actions taken against Microsoft in the intervening years (click the link above to see Wired’s excellent timeline), but none has taken the company down, and today it boasts annual revenue of $59.54 billion and a market cap of over $250 billion.
Facebook is no Microsoft by revenue or valuation, but it is in a similar position. It is essentially a social networking monopoly, as Microsoft was an operating system monopoly. People have the proverbial love/hate relationship with both companies. They complain constantly about both companies’ policies, privacy abuses, complexity, constant unexplained and sometimes invisible changes, and seeming obliviousness to the rights of consumers. But at the same time, hundreds of millions of people use the products and services of both companies all day long, every day of their lives. Because each offers the most popular and most widely understood (not necessarily the best) offering in its respective category.
In both cases, there is too much marketplace momentum and dominance for either company to fail. They will both experience ups and downs in user sentiment, and revenue. But people simply aren’t going to walk away from Facebook. The very experience that has made Facebook so successful, the ability for people to so easily make connections with others, necessarily requires some sacrifice or privacy. And Facebook is run by business people who will keep crossing the line to maximize the dollar value of the business.
This will not be recorded as an online privacy sea change. This is going to be a minor course correction. I do hope Facebook heeds this as warning and changes its position on consumer privacy and user satisfaction. But I’m not optimistic about that.
My old boss, Scott McNealy, former CEO of Sun Microsystems, said, in 2003, “You have no privacy. Get over it.” He was saying that our private information was already in the hands of credit card companies, health care providers, and so many other third parties, the notion that we control this information is flawed.
Today I read on Evan Brown’s awesome Internet Cases Blog, that a New York criminal court judge, ruling last month in an Internet privacy suit, said:
“In this day of wide dissemination of thoughts and messages through transmissions which are vulnerable to interception and readable by unintended parties, armed with software, spyware, viruses and cookies spreading capacity; the concept of internet privacy is a fallacy upon which no one should rely.”
Brown points out that from a legal standpoint, this statement is both puzzling and unnecessary, but it is nonetheless indicative of a general sentiment that there is no longer any reasonable expectation of online privacy.
All of the social networking leaders have stumbled. Facebook has made one privacy screw-up after another. Google compromised user information with the launch of Buzz. They are all repeat offenders with little possibility of rehabilitation.
Yet how many blog posts tell us how to adjust our Facebook privacy settings? Who’s telling Facebook to stop adjusting its privacy settings, and to maintain a safe, stable environment that consistently respects user privacy? Or, are Google and Facebook, with “populations” greater than that of the United States, beyond the reach of any regulatory agency?
Truly, we are in a state of anarchy when it comes to online privacy. The best policy is to assume you have no privacy.