Facebook only half as evil as you think

Most objections to Facebook’s alleged violations of our privacy are somewhat hysterical. Mostly because, instead of explaining

  • why privacy is necessarily inviolable
  • if it’s not inviolable, under what conditions can it be violated
  • what harms accrue from those alleged violations of privacy
  • why Facebook is to blame in any case

people choose to instead simply assert their interpretations of the above, trusting that we all share their indignation. They usually cannot offer arguments in support of their claims that Facebook is evil. And, what they mostly do is forget that they signed up for something called a social network, which is set up for the purposes of connecting people to those they know, might know, and might like to know. So with that as a premise of this service that you voluntarily subscribed to, any future objections to what Facebook does with your “personal” data need to throw a little sprinkling of caveat emptor into the rant.

One friend, who I shall call Marvin (because a. that’s not his name, and b. he’s terrifyingly serious about his privacy) does offer some good arguments. Unfortunately, I heard them over far too many glasses of wine, and the most memorable detail is therefore his indignation at having the avatars/mugshots of “suggested friends” appear on the right panel of his Facebook screen. That didn’t strike me as a compelling argument, but perhaps my suggested friends are less hideous, and therefore cause less harm to behold. But if the better arguments are given short shrift here, he will no doubt berate me for it later, and I shall update you accordingly.

So: Given that we sign up voluntarily, what is it that we sign up for? Marvin – and perhaps most people – would say that we sign up to share stuff with a select group of people. So, a principled objection to Facebook is that our choice of who to share data with is being ignored, and the data is instead being shared with a wider circle. In some cases, that circle is large enough to encompass everyone with a computer. Some of this universal sharing should not be of any concern to us. If you can click on the interest-set “Creamed spinach”, and discover that a friend has been lying to you about his distaste for that dish, I don’t imagine the consequences will be significant.

However, if you are a fan of Britney Spears, I’d imagine you’d want that to be known to only a select few. In many of these cases, I think it’s reasonable to ask why you would ever put such embarrassing or incriminating data on a public platform in the first place. Perhaps some of these debates boil down to who you prefer to blame. I almost always prefer to blame individual members of the species, in that the risk society and a culture of victimhood has generally led us to abrogating our responsibilities to look after ourselves. Others, though, may think that there’s an assumption of trustworthiness at the heart of our engagement with platforms like Facebook, and that this unspoken contact is generally violated by the freedom they exercise in sharing our information.

My point is simply that not every instance of information being shared is (or should be) of concern, in that ordinary social discourse admits to this distinction. We often talk about each other, sometimes in the presence of the subject and sometimes not. In some cases, these conversations amount to scurrilous rumour or gossip, and at other times, they consist of the harmless sharing of information. We have this distinction in “real” life, but it seems to sometimes be forgotten in Facebook-land, where suddenly any information sharing is held to be evil. I don’t think that most of us tell others things that we would be offended at their passing on to others (who we might not know). Embarrassing and/or incriminating details are revealed rarely, and carefully (or drunkenly, of course). But we would hardly ever reveal them in casual conversation – which is what Facebook is. It is not a confessional, or a session with a therapist. If you treat it like it is, then you’ve brought some of the exposure on to yourself.

So, besides the campaign against Facebook going wrong in contributing to our (convenient) amnesia about our own responsibilities to safeguard our reputations, what does it get right? Mostly, two things:

1. While you can still lock down your privacy on Facebook (see the New York Times for a handy map of settings), the steps you’ve got to go through do present an obstacle, in that they are¬†labyrinthine¬†and time-consuming. Also, it’s not made clear to a user that she needs to do so – someone joining Facebook to connect with Aunt Mabel may have a (fairly reasonable) assumption that only herself and Mabel will see the pictures of the dismembered cat, and Facebook could (should?) perhaps guide a new user through those settings when they first join.

2. All the guiding of a new user through the options may be for naught, if Facebook change their privacy policy and make your previous settings insufficient to protect what you’d like to. Which they have done, at least four times so far. What’s worse is that Facebook allegedly reset all of your previous choices to a default setting when they do revise the privacy policy, making your previous attempts at firewalling your life pointless. And as those privacy settings become more complicated (see point 1), users may be disinclined to go through the whole process again.

My suggestion would therefore, in general, be for us to stop being so precious about ourselves, and information about those selves and their lives. The information is generally not really that interesting, except to people who already care about us and our lives. Anyone else who comes across it will most likely pay scant attention. If it’s really (potentially) interesting to anybody, we should perhaps reconsider the wisdom of posting it on Facebook. We should certainly not be concerned about targeted advertising, in that we’re going to get a screen full of advertising in any case – and surely we should prefer that the advertising may be of relevance to our interests?

You can also make sure to lock down your profile as much as Facebook allows. Remove all the personal information you can, refuse to “like” anything, and so forth. But at some point in this restricted Facebook-diet, it may become somewhat pointless to be a member at all, and you should perhaps consider setting up your own mechanism for information sharing across a group of friends – a password-protected blog that only your friends can view, Google groups, Diaspora (for real geeks), LinkedIn and a host of other options. And if you want to delete your Facebook account, don’t believe those who say it’s not possible. It really is.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.