from TheNation Website
When one of America's largest electronic surveillance systems was launched in Palo Alto a year ago, it sparked an immediate national uproar.
The new system tracked roughly 9 million Americans, broadcasting their photographs and personal information on the Internet; 700,000 web-savvy young people organized online protests in just days. Time declared it "Gen Y's first official revolution," while a Nation blogger lauded students for taking privacy activism to "a mass scale."
Yet today, the activism has waned, and the
surveillance continues largely unabated.
Suddenly everything people posted, from photos to their relationship status, was sent to hundreds of other users in a feed of time-stamped updates.
People complained that the new system violated their privacy. Facebook argued that it was merely distributing information users had already revealed. The battle - and Facebook's growing market dominance in the past year - show how social networking sites are rupturing the traditional conception of privacy and priming a new generation for complacency in a surveillance society.
Users can complain, but the information keeps
Chris Kelly, Facebook's chief privacy
officer, said that when he speaks on campuses these days, students
approach him to say that while they initially "hated" the feed, now they
"can't live without it."
Many users had their pictures and actions
morphed into advertisements without their consent, turning private commerce
into public endorsements. That could be an illegal appropriation, according
to Daniel Solove and William McGeveran, two law professors who
specialize in digital privacy and who blogged about the issue.
The group drew less than 0.2 percent of Facebook members, far less than during last year's feed protest, but this time MoveOn helped the protest group press specific reforms, generate critical media attention and even rattle some advertisers, who backtracked on using Beacon. Facebook buckled, agreeing to make the ads opt-in and allowing people to reject the whole program, for now.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg apologized to users on the company blog, explaining the problem in the language of the new privacy.
Yet both Facebook and its privacy protesters largely operated within the same model of privacy control - opt-in versus opt-out, sharing versus concealing.
The traditional concept of privacy was largely absent from the debate: the premise that what people do on other websites should never be anyone else's business.
Growing up online, young people assume their inner circle knows their business.
The "new privacy" is about controlling how many people know - not if anyone knows.
Facebook's Kelly also contends that privacy is shifting from an "absolute right to be let alone" to an emphasis on control.
The feed rankled because it plucked personal details that previously existed in a social context, limited by visitors' interest in a person, and shattered any sense of concentric circles of control by broadcasting them across wider networks. (Students list hundreds of acquaintances as "Facebook friends," assuming that people they barely know don't check their profiles often.)
Boyd compares it to yelling over loud music at a
bar, only to find the music has stopped and everyone is staring at you.
Facebook has achieved near total penetration of the college market, with more than eight out of ten college students registered. Older Americans are also flocking to the site: it draws 250,000 new members every day.
Overall, it is the fifth most popular site in
the country, ranking just behind YouTube. Young and old use it to divulge
loads of personal information, often oblivious to the ramifications and
ignorant of the basic features of the technology they use so effortlessly to
Then users diligently label one another in these pictures, enabling visitors to see every photo anyone has ever posted of other people, regardless of their consent or knowledge.
Even if users terminate their membership,
pictures of them posted by others remain online. But users can't really
Facebook's 58 million active members have posted more than 2.7 billion photos, with more than 2.2 billion digital labels of people in the pictures.
But what many users may not realize is that the company owns every photo. In fact, everything that people post is automatically licensed to Facebook for its perpetual and transferable use, distribution or public display.
Facebook, a privately held company, rejected a
buyout offer from Yahoo! last year and recently sold a 1.6 percent stake to
Microsoft, which values the company at up to $15 billion. (Rupert Murdoch's
News Corporation bought MySpace, the other leading social
network site, for $580 million in 2005.)
Of the students who expressed the highest possible concern about protecting their class schedule, however, 40 percent still posted it on Facebook, and 47 percent of those concerned about political views still provided them.
The study concluded there was,
Why would young people publicize the very
information they want to keep private?
But even if young people are performing, many
are clueless about the size of their audience. That's because the new
generation is often proficient with technology it doesn't fully understand.
The Carnegie Mellon study found that one-third of students don't
realize that it is easy for non-students to access their Facebook profiles.
And 30 percent of students did not even know they had an option to limit
access to their profile.
Four out of five simply accept the default setting, which allows their whole network to see the entire profile.
Users may think they're only sharing with the
friends they can see, but they're actually publishing with the reach of a
Facebook's Kelly argues that the trend is broader than a single website.
People know their actions are tracked online, he says, just as they're tracked on streets filled with surveillance cameras,
In an era of massive top-down surveillance, posting information on a website may feel downright redundant.
Just as most consumers have acquiesced to
companies collecting loads of data and private information about them, many
Facebook users seem resigned to the company's aggressive use of private
The move could fundamentally shift the site from a (relatively) closed social network to a more exposed public directory. Students originally joined Facebook as a private campus hub, but now it touts some of their profile information to the world. (Diligent users can opt out, and visitors still need to be Facebook members to view people within networks.)
The massive search function might one day make Facebook an indispensable part of Internet commerce - creating the "Google of people," as blogger Jeff Jarvis puts it.
The potential loss of privacy could
ultimately beat the feed controversy by several orders of magnitude, but
there has been no backlash so far.
A 2005 survey found that one out of four employers has rejected applicants based on research via search engines. Campus police increasingly review social networking sites to investigate crimes. Arkansas's John Brown University expelled a student after administrators discovered Facebook pictures of him dressed in drag last year, a violation of the school's Christian conduct code.
And a Secret Service officer paid a dorm visit
to University of Oklahoma sophomore Saul Martinez based on a comment
he posted on the Facebook group Bush Sucks.
Thus "control" devolves to the thousands of people in their networks and the business models of ambitious companies. The entire social network ecosystem, with its detailed records, pictures and videos of formative years, can completely change on a company's whim.
Most users are left relying on the kindness of
strangers and the benevolence of business.
Just as the government requires standardized nutrition labels on packaged food, a privacy label would reveal the "ingredients" of social networking.
For example, the label might tell users:
This disclosure requirement would push Facebook
to catch up with its customers. After all, users disclose tons of
information about themselves. Why shouldn't the company open up a bit, too?
Young people are doing just the opposite.
Their favorite websites are about real people in
the real world - not just their like-minded best friends but hundreds of
acquaintances from different facets of their lives.
Social networking is a free service, but
abdicating control of personal information, photos, writing, videos and
memories seems like a high price to pay.