December 06, 2007

Facebook and Privacy

Reading James's latest post about Facebook and having seen a recent Bloggingheads episode between Jim Pinkerton and David Brin, I think that Brin is right and that there is a changing attitude to privacy on the internet symbolised by the fact that my generation are relaxed in sites like Facebook and MySpace. Privacy is obviously a problem in these sites- I realise what James is talking about- ultimately you are committing information about yourself to the internet where anyone can access and see it and where others can monitor it, save it and store it for the future. The real question though is what kind of information you are submitting and how worried should you be about another person knowing that information about you.

Facebook is a website for those who don't know it which basically provides a social linkup service- a facebook page provides a list of people who have accepted being your friends (that list may not be contiguous with those who are your friends in real life- or even those who are on facebook and are your friends) and allows you to keep in touch with them. I've used facebook to meet people that I haven't seen for years and years and years- and its often been quite fun to reactivate friendships. Facebook can if you want it to hold other details about you for others to look at- things like your favourite film and favourite book and there are a variety of ways that the site can take more information from you (you can do a test to establish your film taste) and you record there basic demographic data- your relationship status. People put photos up there too- I had one of myself with Hans Blix for a while- some of the photos are more embarrassing, taken when people are drunk etc. I hope though that everyone gets the idea- Facebook is basically like a University common room noticeboard which documents the activities of all its members- some are juvenile, some are embarrassing but through providing contact details it facilitates social contact.

James and others are worried about privacy. There is some reason to suspect that Facebook has been installing cookies on its members' computers tracking their activity around the internet and tailoring their advertising to meet the activity seen therein. Obviously there was a lot of anger about that amongst those who use the site. But its worth getting things in perspective: Facebook may indeed have violated corporate ethics (it admits to having done so), but that's a seperate issue to the whole point of a social networking site. Ultimately the thing about Facebook and Myspace and other sites like them is that they symbolise the growth of a new attitude to privacy I think amongst a new generation. Basically people don't care anymore about their antics being broadcast. Part of this has to do with the growth of celebrity culture- if I am willing to comment on Princess Diana's marriage then why should I care if my own love affairs are out there. Part of it is a sense that if everyone is doing it, it doesn't matter as much- ultimately there is anonymity in quantity. There is also anonymity in quantity of information- talk to most modern historians and they throw their hands up in despair about what historians of the future will do with all the information contained on the internet, how will anyone ever work out how to categorise or understand it.

The last point I suppose is James's real point, which is that by providing the information to the world on Facebook, information which will not be deleted (either by Google cacheing it or by Facebook retaining it) the government has automatically more knowledge and hence more power over us all. I'm not sure that is actually true. Governments have always been able to find out about their subjects- and more about their subjects than their subjects have known about each other. Yes this probably makes it easier for the government to know whether you had a lesbian fling when you were 19 or that you got horribly drunk when you were twenty two and embraced a lamp post and declared ever dying passion to said lamppost (don't laugh one of my mates at Oxford was once left hugging a lamppost on St Giles!) but the point is so does everyone else. Information is now not solely the governments- it is the collective's and I suggest that makes things slightly different. Furthermore just as in the 18th Century society evolved to meet the new needs for the defence to be made more powerful after the creation of a police force, so do I beleive society in the twenty first century will evolve to meet the facebook phenomena. We can see it already happening: David Cameron will be I think the first of many politicians to argue that his youthful indiscretions are of no matter besides his later claims to office.

We'll see but in general like David Brin I am an optimist about the transparant society- I don't think that we will end up in Big Brother partly because we all have this information about each other- there isn't a monopoly of information handled by the state and partly because I think information becomes less powerful as there is more of it out there about everyone. I might be wrong- but human life is a grand experiment and the internet is part of it. Ultimately the internet facilitates this kind of exposure- whether through blogs, facebook, myspace or whatever other kinds of website you think about- and I think that society will evolve ways to cope with it.


Ashok said...

I heard something about a lesbian fling! Is it on Facebook?

jmb said...

You have reassured me although I am a bit more cautious about what I put on Facebook now and I use a different name so they have a file on someone who doesn't legally exist.