Opinion 10/1/10 7
“Jennifer Cathy” Raises Facebook Concerns Approximately 90% of Miramonte students use the online social network Facebook. If you are one of them, last year you may have received a friend request from a “Jennifer Cathy.” Those who viewed Cathy’s Facebook profile page or accepted her as a friend saw an attractive blonde teenager who claimed she attended Miramonte. No students, however, had seen her before, and no record of her existed in the school directory. Rumors started circulating around campus concerning Cathy’s identity. Many students suspected that a school administrator created a false Facebook account to incriminate those who had uploaded illicit photos of themselves. Others speculated that a Miramonte parent intended to turn these photos in to administrators, and some thought that a student had simply pulled an online prank. As word spread, some Miramonte Facebook users “un-friended” Cathy. Before long, her account disappeared. I don’t know who brought Jennifer Cathy into digital existence, and I don’t know this person’s motives. The incident, however, raises pertinent questions about Facebook and its role in online openness and exposure. by David Beal Facebook launched in February 2004 as the brainchild of Mark Zuckerberg, a bright Harvard undergraduate who wanted to create an online student directory for the university. “Thefacebook,” as he originally called the site, took the clean, elite feeling of an Ivy League school and put it online. As Facebook branched out to other schools and eventually to the public, its default privacy settings only allowed a user’s friends and his or her “networks” (everyone who attended Miramonte or lived in the East Bay, for instance) to access information like the user’s name, gender, and profile picture. Since then, Facebook has been steadily expanding the number of people who can view the rest of users’ profiles. As of April 2010, Facebook’s default privacy settings allowed the entire internet to access every part of a user’s profile except his or her contact information and birthday. In short, Facebook has made Jennifer Cathy irrelevant. If the Miramonte administration wanted to see students’ photos, Facebook makes their job simple; every photo on Facebook has a distinct “url,” or web address, available to anyone with an internet connection. Tinkering with your account’s photo settings, therefore, probably won’t solve the perceived problem of spying grown-ups. If it did, though, this would only be the tip of the iceberg. Although Facebook responded to public uproar by making some changes to its privacy settings in May, these changes emphasize profile visibility and user-friendliness without clearly or adequately addressing fundamental concerns about the availability of users’ personal data. Chiefly, Facebook has made that data available to marketers and business partners. These third parties can then target you for their advertising. Complete privacy on Facebook remains an elusive, unattainable goal for the site’s 500 million users, because Facebook has rendered its privacy settings irrelevant. These settings can’t control the dispersion of profile information that Facebook deems “public information,” including name, profile picture, current city, gender, networks, friend list, and the recently instituted list of “connections.” When a user pushes the “like” button on Facebook or on a different site, or when they “check in” somewhere with Facebook’s recently instituted “Places” application, he or she makes a “connection” that links to his or her profile. These connections, publicly available, provide the basis for targeted marketing. The more connections a user makes, the more data Facebook can give out; because I “liked” Bob Dylan, an ad pops up for me about an upcoming Bob Dylan biography.
Graphic: D. Beal
Marketers also have access to a user’s friends’ information and connections, and they use this information to give the user personalized recommendations that reinforce their products and build trust. This also distinguishes Facebook’s system of targeted advertising from Google’s system. Google, who pioneered this kind of advertising, only has access to a single user’s search entries. Facebook, however, has access to an entire network that is quickly becoming the largest “hub” of the web. All of Facebook’s privacy changes, therefore, trace back to profit. Facebook creates gossip highways where we find out about sex, death, and funny cats (novelist Jonathan Franzen recently described our digital era as “a great time for the exhibitionists”), then charges marketers more for the targeted advertising we see there. This reaps greater profits for the marketers themselves, while the user’s information and identity becomes a commodity. Zuckerberg, Facebook’s C.E.O., implies that the network is a utopia, leading the way to a more “open” internet and an improved, peaceful global society. Facebook’s New World Order aside, the changes have no ostensible benefits for users. The idea of “links” to other websites makes the internet open and interconnected
already; Facebook doesn’t need to augment that with marketing-based “connections.” Also, some targeted ads have garnered a reputation for being strange and offputting (some read “Make a love child” or “Credit score cancer?”). In some respects, users should expect these developments. When people create Facebook accounts, they inherently lose possession and control of their information as it flies through cyberspace. If we used these criteria, however, we couldn’t send e-mails, go on instant messaging networks, or use any other established online communication systems. A loss of privacy is in the nature of the online beast. This, however, doesn’t justify Facebook’s policies. Although Zuckerberg candy-coats the issue by saying “we are building a web where the default is social,” Elliot Schrage, Vice President for Public Policy at Facebook, puts it more directly: “If you’re not comfortable sharing, don’t.” In other words, Facebook automatically assumes that the user wants to fully participate in everything Facebook offers. Facebook spreads users’ information without asking, and even when users have deleted their accounts, Facebook retains this information. What can Miramonte students do? At first, I thought the problem would be solved if I deleted my Facebook account, but this clearly isn’t the case. Deletion would make little difference, and Facebook has become such an integral part of many students’ social and educational lives (myself included) that this solution would be impractical. We can, however, spend the time to make our profiles visible to “Friends Only.” Even if these privacy changes ultimately mean little, they are a step towards online security. We can refrain from sharing photos, statuses, links, connections, and wall posts that we wouldn’t want the entire world to see (a glitch last Spring even let users view their friends’ supposedly private chat messages for a few hours). We shouldn’t buy into marketing tricks like “Instant Personalization,” “Open Graph,” “Facebook Connect,” or “Places.” The most we can do, though, is stay informed on Facebook’s changes and understand that Facebook is primarily an advertising tool; we advertise ourselves, and we consume the data that Facebook’s advertisers give back to us. Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren said in 1890 that with the advent of cameras and tabloids, “numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that ‘what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.’” With the advent of Facebook, what is whispered in the closets is packaged, sold, and churned back to you before you can even blink. Go online for links and more information.
Market Leaves Minimal Room for Net Neutrality by Eric Hass
Imagine trying to access an unpopular website you cherish and waiting practically forever for it to load. Then, puzzled by the delay, you google ‘internet slowness’ and Google loads in a split second. What’s going on, you think. Evidently, net neutrality isn’t in effect. Net neutrality is the idea that owners of websites shouldn’t have to pay for the amount of bandwidth their users consume. If this were the case, then the biggest websites would pay more to send their content to users faster. Net neutrality would make Internet service providers provide all websites at the same speed. Thus, rich websites wouldn’t have a competitive advantage over poorer ones. Congress must pass laws making net neutrality permanent. Virtually every player in the debate, including the Investor’s Business Daily, has acknowledged the inviolate nature of this principle, at least for wireline connections. Wireless connections’ fate is undecided. Google is reluctant to impose new constraints, and Verizon obviously doesn’t want to make a binding prediction for their future. Wireless connections ought to be under the same rules as wireline, because they are for the same purpose and will compose the majority of Internet connections in the future. In addition, Comcast has posed no scenario that would necessitate the partnerships between content providers and access providers that now dominates every other system of media. With television, you must subscribe to different packages that consist of different
numbers of channels. When you pay the New York Times for your daily paper, you are paying the writers. When you pay Comcast for your Internet connection, you are not paying the writers of whatever websites you read. This is not a problem. There is no valid reason that the Internet should follow their lead. Comcast also points to its current system of open access for wireless connections as an emblem of the company’s good intentions. If they have open access now, as the system is rapidly changing, why not lock it in place by holding to their word and campaigning in favor of open access? Comcast, as every for-profit corporation must, will eventually favor the most profitable business model, which isn’t net neutrality. This will likely include charging content providers for bandwidth usage. One of the most fundamental business practices is to get people hooked on something free, and eventually start charging for it. There is no reason that this won’t happen to content providers unless net neutrality is locked in now. There is no financial reason that the millions of news sources available on the Internet should persist. But these news sources are some of the Internet’s few benefits. Indeed, the U.S. Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia has permitted the intrusion of corporate financial logic into the Internet by deflecting the F.C.C.’s attempt to stop Comcast from slowing down traffic of BitTorrent and sending them to Congress. It is also unlikely that any forces in Congress will be able to give expanded powers to the FCC while personal responsibility with government funding is the go-to solution.
by David Beal by Eric Hass Graphic: D. Beal