To my Facebook Friends

Originally published at Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.

This is an invitation to remain friends. But Facebook is increasingly the wrong place to do this. I can’t say I fully understand why so many people are so complacent about privacy issues. But apparently not everyone is:

U.S. Senator Charles Schumer is adding fuel to the fire, asking the FCC to provide privacy guidelines for social networks. Schumer believes “The default policy should be one of privacy, and users should be in control of how they choose to share their information, not the other way around.” This “opt-out” to “opt-in” transition sounds smart to us, but check out the Senator’s Facebook page to find out what everyone else is saying and to put in your own two cents.

And that’s a politician who is part of the mainstream political establishment that has been complicit in a broad attack on privacy in the United States. Here, however, what he says is eminently sensible. Meanwhile,

Taking a more active approach, a group in Germany expressed their concern over “privacy invasions” by sabotaging a Google “Street View” car. The Google employee returned to find the tires let down and the camera cables slashed. However, the protestors were kind enough to leave behind the informative note, “Please do not drive away, you have a puncture”.

With Facebook, it’s been a relatively steep slippery slope, with one privacy outrage after another. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a timeline, but what you really need to know is what Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has to say:

When I got started in my dorm room at Harvard, the question a lot of people asked was ‘why would I want to put any information on the Internet at all? Why would I want to have a website?’

And then in the last 5 or 6 years, blogging has taken off in a huge way and all these different services that have people sharing all this information. People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.

We view it as our role in the system to constantly be innovating and be updating what our system is to reflect what the current social norms are.

A lot of companies would be trapped by the conventions and their legacies of what they’ve built, doing a privacy change – 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.

Zuckerberg points to broader social trends, but in the end says, “We decided that these would be the social norms now.” Who is “we?” Facebook, of course. And they’re making that decision for all their users.

But those folks in Germany aren’t alone. A quick Google search (irony noted) reveals protests in Britain and in Japan. And I’ve been hearing about this pretty much since Google began expanding Street View outside U.S. borders.

I’m thinking Zuckerberg is taking a rather narrow view of public opinion which conveniently serves commercial interests. Maybe I’m wrong. But Zuckerberg stands to make a lot of money for as long as he can get away with what he’s doing.

And I’m increasingly troubled. I don’t think I should have to revisit Facebook’s privacy settings nearly so often as I have had to do. In a way, it’s “bait and switch.” I signed up under one privacy policy, and as EFF points out, now I have something quite different.

I’ve set up my own site. I’ve actually been moving the other way on privacy, towards stricter protections, at the same time I’ve been improving it. And I’m thinking that if I have to revisit Facebook’s privacy issues one more time, I just might close the account instead.

So this is an invitation to join me. But because I saw that the self-registration procedure was of more utility to would-be spammers than actual friends, you’ll need me or someone who is already an authenticated user on the site to issue an invitation through the site. Message me with your email address for that invitation.