Facebook’s “red ink” – notes on privacy

Another Facebook privacy flap?  Why do these keep happening?  Is it that FB is a large and profit-maximizing near-monopoly?  Well sure, but there’s a more subtle reason.  We really don’t know what we mean by privacy.

Here’s a simple example.  Many of my FB friends have let me know their birthday.  On the one hand, there’s no way of stopping me from doing whatever I want with this information, including selling it to companies for a few pennies.  But on the other hand, this information was given to me with some implied trust as to how I would use it, so it’s not really mine to give away deliberately or accidentally.  And on the third hand, do I really need my friend Joe Shlabotnik’s permission to tell United Airlines that I know someone who lives in Providence RI?

My point is not to propose a solution to these issues, but to say that they are complicated, and neither FB nor us has the vocabulary to deal with them.  Now, you could make everything completely public (yikes!), or everything completely private (why be on a social network in the first place?) or give users a confusing array of knobs to turn (cf. Diaspora*) but the situation is reminiscent of this joke from East Germany (quoted in Zizek’s “Desert of the Real”):

A German worker gets a job in Siberia; aware of how all mail will be read by the censors, he tells his friends: ‘Let’s establish a code: if a letter you get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it’s true; if it’s written in red ink, it’s false.’  After a month, his friends get the first letter, written in blue ink: ‘Everything is wonderful here: the shops are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, cinemas show films from the West, there are many beautiful girls ready for an affair – the only thing you can’t get is red ink.’

Facebook is notable for the red ink it is missing – a simple way of expressing preferences on privacy and social relationships.  And it would be in its interest to come up with one, so everyone can relax, because wary and suspicious people don’t spend money.

My proposal for Facebook?  Hire a philosopher, an anthropologist, and a lingust, of the same stature as Google’s economist Varian.  Make a big deal of it, and let this scholarly dream team come up with something that will shut the Wall Street Journal up and get everyone back to shopping.  And if you do go this route, feel free to check through my friends list – I think you’ll find some people who would be great for the job.




One Response to “Facebook’s “red ink” – notes on privacy”

  1. William D. Says:

    Privacy-wise, I think the uproar over Facebook is more a of lament by various groups who don’t like the direction the new world is heading. I think Facebook generally does better than I’d expect them to with regards to privacy. They control basically 100% of the world’s data and they generally have resisted the temptation to sell it, do crazy things with it, etc.

    I don’t think the issue is Facebook’s leadership or the direction they go in. As powerful as Facebook is, they can’t prevent the world from opening up completely which is the direction we’re heading in. Sites like that http://www.getunvarnished.com or even http://www.dirtyphonebook.com seem to be the direction the world is trending towards with less and less privacy.

    I think the fact that Diaspora got so much funding right away was an abberation; a few rich techies found a cause celebre and found a way to protest the world; they didn’t really expect it to do anything.

    With regards to Facebook specifically I think security is a bigger issue for them these days. There was a story awhile back about how there was a bug where peoples private messages to other people were exposed. Now, to me, THAT is a much bigger issue.

    I honestly think the uproar over Facebook is irrelevant to them. They’re growing faster than any site in history. A few random criticisms are irrelevant to them. Facebook quit day garnered something like 10,000 total withdrawals from Facebook. Nobody except a few vocal critics really care in my opinion.

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