Editorial: Facebook Can’t Catch a Break

In 1965, Justice Hugo Black said " 'Privacy’ is a broad, abstract and ambiguous concept"
In 1965, Justice Hugo Black said " 'Privacy’ is a broad, abstract and ambiguous concept"

What a tumultuous few months it has been for our friends at Facebook. Secret meetings, privacy concerns, rogue applications – it seems the company can’t avoid making headlines as of late, especially negative ones.

Does the lack of simplistic privacy controls bother me – the ones that existed prior to the revamped process promised from a CEO under fire? In my opinion, not particularly, and I don’t think the great Facebook privacy debate has me sufficiently concerned to join the rather unsuccessful campaign to cancel accounts.

I do understand, however, why all the controversy exists. If you ask me, the problem is not with Facebook and its policies. The real problem lies in our understanding of exactly what privacy is, and how much we are all entitled to.

Mark Zuckerberg thinks that sharing more data is better for everyone. But I am doubtful, as he suggests, that the digital age has fundamentally altered how Americans view privacy. It’s hard to imagine that the internet has overturned more than 230 years of deeply ingrained skepticism and a national ethos that holds personal privacy in the highest regard, regardless of our ability to define exactly what is private. It’s the ultimate example of hubris, as if the Facebook phenomenon were something that will be written into textbooks on civil liberties, after legislatures everywhere roll back privacy protections and judges gleefully rubber-stamp the reforms.

Nevertheless, the notion of privacy is an inexact science, with debates that continue smoldering among constitutional scholars as to whether the idea even exists under current US law. Perhaps Justice Hugo Black said it best in a 1965 Supreme Court opinion: “ ‘Privacy’ is a broad, abstract and ambiguous concept”.

In May, Zuckerberg told reporters that people have become “comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people”. This may be absolutely true, but I would contend that Americans will always have a ‘reasonable expectation’ of privacy, and at some point the Facebook goliath may push too far. Sharing more information with more people, that’s understandable. But sharing all our information with everyone – perhaps not so much.

When BusinessWeek recently asked Facebook why the company employed rather complicated privacy settings, in some cases sharing information as the default setting rather than opt-in, a company spokesperson called practice “entirely proper” and that the debate it has sparked is nothing more than a “backlash to a public relations failure”. Even if our society can’t define precisely what we mean by privacy in philosophical or legal terms, our common sense tells us when we’ve put our finger on something like this, it comes back smelling a bit fishy.

Don’t get me wrong, Facebook and social networking are fabulous tools. How else could we locate that long-lost childhood best friend? It’s the perfect tool for shameless self promotion, and we are all free to consume as much or as little as we wish.

"It’s the ultimate example of hubris, as if the Facebook phenomenon were something that will be written into textbooks on civil liberties, after legislatures everywhere roll back privacy protections and judges gleefully rubber-stamp the reforms"

As for the uproar over the privacy issues and lack of transparent controls, perhaps a reminder about the role of individual responsibility is in order. Signing up for a Facebook account means giving up your information in exchange for using a free service. It’s nothing new in the internet age, as this business model was hardly invented by Mark Zuckerberg.

Even with Facebook promising to roll out more straightforward privacy controls, I would also remind our readers of their Emerson, and call for a bit of self-reliance. For now, it’s your account, and your responsibility to maintain the privacy settings. Short of any legal negligence on Facebook’s part, all of the complaining is nothing more than hot air.

I’m confident history will show that Facebook didn’t revolutionize the notion of privacy, because its very existence is far from concrete doctrine. Just something to keep in mind for all those privacy-loving libertarians out there who have a picture of Mark Zuckerberg affixed to their dart boards.
 


Drew Amorosi is the US Bureau Chief for Infosecurity

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