Question: ‘Why did Facebook go public?’
Answer: ‘They couldn’t figure out the privacy settings either’.
I’m sure you’ve heard this joke before – it’s been doing the rounds for a few weeks now – and yes it does seem ironic that the day Facebook went public, plaintiff lawyers in the US filed a $15 billion lawsuit against Facebook accusing it of alleged privacy violations.
The class action consolidates 21 related cases filed in more than a dozen states in 2011 and early 2012. The $15 billion itself is loosely based on the Wiretap Act which lets people sue for $10,000 if someone records their conversation without permission. This Act provides statutory damages per user of $100 per day per violation, up to a maximum per user of $10,000.
The lawsuit relates to the revelation in September 2011 that Facebook was improperly tracking the Internet use of its members even after they logged out of their accounts. Apparently Facebook placed cookies on users’ computers that told the social network which websites they visited. Under the company’s own policy, it promised not to do that and thus violated the limits of its users consent when it did.
According to some reports the lawsuit highlights Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg’s long history of using his hacking skills to ‘steal’ people’s personal data. The complaint opens by reproducing this email exchange between Mark Zuckerberg and an unnamed friend:
Zuckerberg: Yeah so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard
Zuckerberg: Just ask.
Zuckerberg: I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS
[Redacted Friend’s Name]: What? How’d you manage that one?
Zuckerberg: People just submitted it.
Zuckerberg: I don’t know why.
Zuckerberg: The “trust me”
Zuckerberg: Dumb fucks.
Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg’s Instant Messages, circa 2004, as made public by New York Magazine on September 20, 2010
The issue of privacy is a continuing problem for Facebook. Facebook’s revenue model is based on making as much information as possible about people visible and available to advertisers. Much of the post-IPO discussion has centred upon whether Facebook, as well as the companies that underwrote the IPO, misled investors about the problem it faced with monetising advertising on mobile platforms. And as a public company, Facebook now has to grow its advertising revenues very rapidly, putting itself under considerable pressure to collect more and more user data to help it target its advertising services.
However, despite the lawsuits, criticisms and warnings, most Facebook users do not seem to be too concerned and are still happy to share their data across a number of social technologies, using their Facebook details to log into various other sites. According to a recent poll 59% of respondents said they have little faith that Facebook would keep their personal information private. Nevertheless, Facebook keeps on growing and people keep on sharing personal information.
Most of us understand that to really gain from the benefits that new technology can bring we do have to accept that we are handing over a great deal of personal information over to private companies. Personalised computing is now the norm. For example, we understand that the smart phone that we bought with location-based services needs location data for those services to work.
With the advances in technology, the line between what we consider public and private information has become increasingly blurred and many contradictory attitudes and practices co-exist – often in the same individuals. While in some contexts we readily give up our privacy, in others we seem increasingly anxious to protect it. For example we often use the same password across multiple personal accounts and reveal masses of personal information about ourselves on social networking sites but are also extremely paranoid about data collection, online transactions and identity-theft.
Social technologies like Facebook have impacted on what we consider as the private and public sphere. Sherry Turkle, Professor of Social Sciences at MIT, makes some interesting points about this in her book, Alone Together. Based on interviews with hundreds of children and adults, it describes our new, unsettling relationships between friends, lovers, parents, and children, and the new ways we understand privacy and community, intimacy and solitude. We now fear the private sphere and the space it allows us for self-reflection and self-exploration, preferring to ‘share’ everything in the public sphere.
This is very true and is a worrying trend because we need the private sphere in order to develop a sense of self. However, we cannot blame new technologies for the way our notions of public and private have been transformed or our growing tendency to make a public show of private behaviour. Collectively we have allowed the erosion of privacy as a social value and the increased publicisation of our private lives. Unfortunately we now live in a world where the voyeuristic reveal-all culture of celebrity gossip and personal ‘confession’ dominates.
Privacy used to be regarded as a supreme virtue in our society. Today’s casual dismissal of the private sphere denigrates one of the most important sites of human experience. The separation of the public and private spheres has been essential for the emergence of the modern individual.
The principle of needing a separation of the public and private sphere has always been a key element of democracy and freedom since the Enlightenment. Maybe it’s time to shift the debate on privacy away from digital data collection and improper tracking and onto how we can begin to renew the notion of the private sphere as something worth defending.
This article was first published in Spiked http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/12522/