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Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of ten of America's presidencies and who has edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review, which has been on the web since 1995, is now published from Freeport, Maine. We get over 5 million article visits a year. See for full contents of our site

January 13, 2010


Telegraph, UK - Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has denounced privacy as a 'social norm' of the past as social networking's popularity continues to grow.

Talking in San Francisco over the weekend at the Crunchie Awards, which recognize technological achievements, the 25 year-old web entrepreneur said: "People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people."
He went on to say that privacy was no longer a 'social norm' and had just evolved over time.

Mr Zuckerberg's statements about privacy chime in with the latest changes made to Facebook's own privacy settings - which caused controversy and has affected the network's 350 million user base.

From last December onwards, all Facebook users' status updates are made publicly available unless the user actively opts to change the settings and make its private. Users were alerted to changes via a 'Notification' posted in the bottom right hand corner of the site.

The sites' users were also given the opportunity to change settings on things like photographs and videos they upload to the site. However, the changes sparked criticism from internet users' rights groups who said the move was a way for Facebook to facilitate more people making more personal information publicly available without realizing it.

The changes also followed agreements Facebook signed with both Google and Microsoft's Bing, to allow people's status updates (which are not set to private) to be indexed by both search engines in order to enable the search giants to provide real-time results.

Mr Zuckerberg defended the changes made by Facebook to its privacy settings, saying it was in line with the new social norms. "A lot of companies would be trapped by the conventions and their legacies of what they've built," he said. "Doing a privacy change for 350 million users is not the kind of thing that a lot of companies would do.

"But we viewed that as a really important thing, to always keep a beginner's mind and what would we do if we were starting the company now and we decided that these would be the social norms now and we just went for it," he explained.

Read Write Web - In Facebook's early days, and for the vast majority of the site's life, its primary differentiator was that your user data was only visible to other users that you approved friend requests from. As of mid-December, Facebook users were no longer allowed to hide from the web-at-large some information including their profile photos, list of friends and interests in the form of fan pages they followed. Text, photo and video updates shared on the site have always been by default private (friends only) but if you'd never changed your privacy settings before last month, then Facebook suggested you switch them to make those updates publicly visible to everyone. That became the new default.

Here are three reasons why making some of this data public by requirement and some public by default is the wrong thing to do and why society is not in fact changing the way that Zuckerberg claims it is.

Mark Zuckerberg might be right, people probably are becoming more comfortable telling the world at large about more and different parts of their lives. Why does that mean it's ok to take away peoples' choices and force them to make public some of their information all the time? That just doesn't make sense.

Privacy is a fundamental human right and while that may seem less true when we're operating on corporate turf like Facebook, Facebook used to be based on privacy. Why give it up so easily? (Isn't it a cause for concern that so much of our civic interaction now goes on through this and other corporate channels?)

It's very hard to believe that the hundreds of millions of mainstream Facebook users are wanting to throw their privacy out the window - and if Facebook believes they are, why not just ask them clearly?

This Summer we wrote about the academic research of University of Massachusetts-Amherst Legal Studies student Chris Peterson, who argues that an accurate and contemporary understanding of privacy is based more on the integrity of context than on absolute secrecy. . .

Peterson argues that the idea that anything published ought to be understood as intended for public distribution is an antiquated understanding from the era when publishing was expensive and required a lot of effort. The opposite is true today, it's free and easy to publish - so information at different levels of appropriateness for public eyes is being published. Why not support that?

"There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment... It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug into your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live - did live, from habit that became instinct - in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and except in darkness, every movement scrutinized." - George Orwell, 1984

Instead of what Facebook is doing, Peterson says that a more appropriate understanding of privacy today is based on context. We expect our communication to go on in an appropriate context (no drinking in church or praying in the bar) and we expect to understand how our communication will be distributed.

If a college friend took photos of you drinking in a bar and showed them off to people in church, you might feel your privacy has been violated in both appropriateness and distribution. The bar is a public place, though, and not completely secret. Thus the need for a more sophisticated understanding of privacy that is more than mere secrecy.

By pushing your personal information and conversation through activity updates fully into the public, Facebook is eliminating any integrity of context that these conversations would naturally have. Posted updates can be directed only to limited lists of Facebook contacts, like college buddies or work friends, but that option is buried under more public default options and much of a user's activity on the site is not subject to that kind of option.

"If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." - Google CEO Eric Schmidt

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg used to say that people would share more information if they felt comfortable knowing that it would only be visible to people they trusted. He told me in an interview two years ago that users who wanted to do so couldn't take their data off of the site because privacy control "is the vector around which Facebook operates." Now apparently, he's changed his mind. . . .

Do people no longer need to keep access to some of their personal information online limited just to trusted friends? Facebook seems to be arguing that they don't.

There is a long list of people who clearly do, though, including: people who've escaped abusive relationships, people with marginalized religious or sexual preferences, people who fear losing their jobs or who've been pushed around by bullies throughout their lives. That list adds up to a very large portion of the world, in fact. The group of Ivy League elites who run Facebook might think there's no reason to be able to control access to their personal information, but many of them are less socially vulnerable and have less need to control their personal information.

Consider this comment left by one of our readers in response to Zuckerberg's statement this weekend.

"As a person who is being stalked for being an innocent bystander in a child custody case, I can tell you that losing my choices over what is searchable or not is huge. I have nothing to hide nor be ashamed of but the loss of choice for my privacy has hit home in a poignant manner."

More than millions, tens or hundreds of millions of people around the world have reason to limit visibility of their personal information from the web but still want to be able to share that information with trusted contacts.

Facebook became a huge success on that premise and ought to be able to continue to thrive without doing a 180 degree turn on privacy.

The Rumpus
- This past summer Facebook relocated from University Avenue in Palo Alto, CA - where several buildings fan out along the downtown strip - to a new central office in Stanford Research Park. A good friend and two-year veteran of Facebook invited me to check out the new space. When I arrived, a security guard handed me a non-disclosure contract to fill out, a requirement to enter the building. "Just making sure you're not a Twitter spy," he said. I can therefore not describe the tour my friend gave, though photos of the new space abound on the Internet. Afterwards, we went out for a drink at the Dutch Goose, a bar popular with techies and Stanford graduate students, where most of this conversation took place. Though forthcoming, my friend was anxious to preserve her anonymity; Facebook employees, after all, know better than most the value of privacy. As she is not permitted to divulge company secrets, and would like to remain employed, her name has been omitted from this interview. It provides an interesting snapshot of the inner workings and culture of Facebook in the summer of 2009.

The Rumpus: On your servers, do you save everything ever entered into Facebook at any time, whether or not it's been deleted, untagged, and so forth?

Facebook Employee: That is essentially correct at this moment. The only reason we're changing that is for performance reasons. When you make any sort of interaction on Facebook - upload a photo, click on somebody's profile, update your status, change your profile information -

Rumpus: When you say "click on somebody's profile," you mean you save our viewing history?

Employee: That's right. How do you think we know who your best friends are? But that's public knowledge; we've explicitly stated that we record that. If you look in your type-ahead search, and you press "A," or just one letter, a list of your best friends shows up. It's no longer organized alphabetically, but by the person you interact with most, your "best friends," or at least those whom we have concluded you are best friends with. . .

Rumpus: When did Facebook make this change?

Employee: That was actually fairly recently, sometime in the last three months. But other than that, we definitely store snapshots, which is basically a picture of all the data on all of our servers. I want to say we do that every hour, of every day of every week of every month. . .

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Anonymous Frances Schaefer said...

Definitely an interesting and thoughful post, I have stopped doing "apps" and am careful of what I say these days, and it's good to be aware of the issues. Thanks!

Frances H. Schaefer

January 14, 2010 2:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If people are going to accept full body scanners at airports, why would they care about keeping anything private?

January 14, 2010 6:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One can always supply inaccurate but plausible info on Facebook and protect one's real info by subterfuge.

I never give social network sites my accurate name and info. My husband works in fraud prevention, and he says that many people become vulnerable to identity theft by allowing too much sensitive info on social networking sites.

January 14, 2010 11:19 AM  

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