Facebook and the death of privacy

In order for public and private life to thrive, we need spaces that are absolutely free from the prying eyes of officialdom and others.

Rob Killick

Topics Politics

New developments in social networking, like Facebook and MySpace, encourage a blurring of the private and public, while a range of internet service providers track our online behaviour. In the UK, our every movement and action seems to be subject to state surveillance, including areas of our lives that we normally assume to be private and confidential. Those who value anonymity have good reason to be concerned. How can we balance our privacy with the desire to take advantage of these new web resources?

Facebook, the social networking phenomenon, has often come under fire for the way it gathers and claims ownership of masses of personal information that users submit to it. It is currently being investigated by the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) after a user complained about not being able to delete their profile, even after terminating an account (1).

Like most Facebook subscribers, this disgruntled person might have failed to read the terms and conditions for sign-up. These clearly state that Facebook owns all the data users add to the site: ‘By posting Member Content to any part of the website, you automatically grant, and you represent and warrant that you have the right to grant, to Facebook an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license to use, copy, perform, display, reformat, translate, excerpt and distribute such information and content and to prepare derivative works of, or incorporate into other works, such information and content, and to grant and authorise sublicenses of the foregoing…’

While social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace effectively own the data we post on their sites, internet companies like Google and Yahoo keep records of what we look for on their search engines. Google co-founder Eric Schmidt’s ambition is to be able to gather enough information about us that we will be able to seek answers from the search engine even on such personal questions as ‘What shall I do tomorrow?’ and ‘What job shall I take?’.

Essentially, what these companies do with this information is up to them – and this is already leading to some iniquities. In November 2007, Jerry Yang, CEO of Yahoo, was called a ‘moral pygmy’ at the US Foreign Affairs Committee for handing over the identities of Chinese dissidents to the Chinese government, resulting in one dissident being sentenced to 10 years in jail (2).

Privacy and state surveillance

It would be hard to disagree with this judgement of Yang, but we should also remember that the US government itself has the power to subpoena similar information from any search engine business. In the UK, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are asked to maintain a reasonable intercept capability under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act so that the security services can track suspects’ use of email and the websites they visit.

Add the fact that, when we’re offline, CCTV tracks our movements, our telephone call records are available to up to 800 state bodies under the RIP Act, and that our credit card and banking records are similarly obtainable, and it becomes clear that we all leave behind us an electronic trail which can be reconstituted into a detailed record of our lives. It is hard to see what remains private these days beyond face-to-face conversations with friends and loved ones.

But is this really a cause for concern? Some would argue that concern with such data tracking and retention is paranoid and alarmist. The government would argue that having the power to view our personal data will help catch potential terrorists or criminals. And, from the point of view of convenient consumption, if Google can ensure that we receive only targeted marketing rather than torrents of useless information and spam emails, then isn’t personalisation to the benefit of us all?

Cyberspace is not a private space

It was always a utopian belief that cyberspace could become a zone of freedom in an otherwise regulated world. The net has, if anything, become an even less private space than the real world. In his perceptive 1999 book, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, American lawyer Lawrence Lessig wrote: ‘When we see the path that cyberspace is on we see that much of the “liberty” present at cyberspace’s founding will vanish in its future. Values that we now consider fundamental will not necessarily remain. Freedoms that were fundamental will slowly disappear.’

The problem is that it is not just the illusory freedom that cyberspace offered in the early, heady days which is disappearing as we move more and more of our activities online. Take the web ‘browser’, for instance. Traditionally, browsing is what you do in a library or a shop. It is essentially a private act. It is up to you what books you pick up, read, take notes from, etc. It is a personal experience and it leaves no trace. Web browsing on the other hand has no privacy inherent in it at all. Law enforcement agencies or marketers can find out exactly what online material you have accessed, how long you spent on each page and how many times you have visited the same websites.

There are many great examples of how the internet has allowed us to transform the way we share and use knowledge, including the excellent initiatives of world-renowned institutions such as the Bodleian Library to put their entire collections online. But this also means that which books we access, when and for how long will be recorded forever (3).

While there are good reasons to be enthusiastic about new forms of communication and information sharing, we increasingly find that we have to sacrifice our privacy in the process. Contrary to Facebook’s all-out ownership claims, the principle of informed consent should be at the centre of digital tracking. Websites and search engines should offer a ‘no tracking’ button, which means that the record of which sites we look at is automatically deleted unless you give express permission for it to be kept. In other words, there should be an opt-in rather than an opt-out.

Privacy, publishing and public life

There is some added confusion around the privacy issue now because of the apparent willingness of many, especially young people to record on blogs and social network sites minute and often embarrassing, even incriminating, details of their lives. Some of this activity, as others have noted, represents an attempt to connect in a fragmented social world. Some of it is also a matter of youthful naivety, which as the longer-term consequences of recording private details online become clear, will probably be tempered. Some of it is down to people simply not giving a toss – a prerogative of youth.

The fact that people choose to put private information on the web which can later compromise them in some way is not, to my mind, principally a privacy issue. Choosing to put information into the public domain remains what it always has been, even prior to the internet: a form of publishing. This really is a case of ‘publish and be damned’, a principle that also applies to emails and any other form of communication. There is no such thing as a ‘private email’, just as there was never such thing as a ‘private letter’. Once sent off, what happens to the content is up to the recipient. What we write and say always has consequences and learning this lesson is simply part of growing up.

The problem arises if we cannot share anything at all in private with other people, if everything we do is potentially intruded on by outsiders. For some people, the need for privacy is important in itself and that is fair enough. It is one of the most profound problems of the surveillance society that the anonymity of urban life has been diminished. In this sense, it does not matter if anybody, whether it’s an individual, the state or an internet company, actually intends to harm us by collecting our private data. The sheer weight of data available on us now is itself oppressive, rendering us completely visible whether we like it or not. Our awareness of this must be influencing the way most of us think, feel and act in ways that we are perhaps not yet entirely clear about.

There is one area in which this lack of privacy is having an obvious effect. The difficulty of keeping part of yourself private has a deep impact on someone’s ability to play a role as a public figure. Anybody considering a role in public life these days has to be prepared for exposure of their private lives in a way that would not have been true in the past. Given the ordinary fallibilities of human beings there can be few people who can confidently put themselves forward for public scrutiny. This does not mean that the same people would not have much to offer as public figures. There have been many exceptional leaders in politics business and the arts in the past who would not have stood the modern celebrity culture exposing of their private activities.

There are as yet no clear lines about what level of online data surveillance, retention or use is acceptable in a democracy. But one thing is certain: it is only through contesting the right of any state or private body to observe and record our actions that a proper debate can take place on what should or should not be permitted in this area. Insisting on transparency of who is retaining what information on whom is an important step in this process. A good place to start for us as individuals would be to ask where the opt-in button is.

Rob Killick is CEO of cScape.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild warned about overblown fears about Facebook. Amol Rajan thought Facebook was encouraging navel-gazing. Norman Lewis and Neil Barrett debated privacy online. The spiked/O2 debate U Txtng 2 me? examined the issues of young people and social networking. Or read more at spiked issue Privacy.

(1) Facebook faces privacy questions, BBC News, 18 January 2008

(2) Yahoo! chief was ‘moral pygmy’ over jailing, The Times (London), 7 November 2007

(3) The biggest library ever built, The Times (London), 16 November 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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