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Facebook, Privacy and the follies of youth

February 20, 2009

It is hard to say anything about Facebook that hasn’t been said elsewhere. Of course, the decision to reverse its attempt to change its terms, which would have made it nigh on impossible for members to remove material they had posted, is a good one. Effectively what it would have done is made Facebook the owner of all personal data posted on the site.

The campaign against it was of course organised through Facebook groups! That in itself should have been enough to persuade Facebook’s young owners of the power and passion generated by the system they had created. But I don’t think they really do understand it, or indeed very much about the implications of what they are doing at all. I mentioned their youth. Last time Facebook got into trouble, it was because of comments made by their ‘Marketing Director’ (age: 24) at Davos, which were (apparently erroneously) taken by the press to indicate that Facebook was going to sell personal data.

Now, I know that it’s not cool and probably won’t make me popular to knock youth at a time where youth is everything (despite the fact that the word is ageing) – Fast Company last month had snowboarder Shaun White as its cover star in a story full of fawning admiration about how rich he had become by telling big companies about the youth market. But at least White seems to have his head screwed on – maybe it’s a class thing? Facebook’s owners on the other hand need to grow up a bit. They need to learn a bit more about the value of some rather old-fashioned fundamental rights, particularly privacy, and strop treating the system they have created as the personal spare-time sophomore project as which it began. I think that they just didn’t appreciate how people would view their proposals.

There is a serious issue here. Privacy is something that you only start to truly truly understand as you get older. Partly this is because your mistakes and your secrets get more serious and more potentially damaging as you get older! But, as I have said before, most of those are nobody’s business but your own and no-one benefits from forced transparency – honesty and conscience are also profoundly personal matters. It has been argued that the ‘youthfulness’ of the Net has encouraged a general carelessness with privacy. I am not sure that is entirely true, as Facebook users have shown – they care. But it’s the careless and – let’s face it – privileged youth of many of these new entrepreneurs, the fast companies, which is more concerning. Most are not success stories from the wrong side of the tracks, who have learned ‘the hard way’.

The threat of legal action from EPIC, which was preparing to take them to the Federal Trade Commission might have concentrated minds in this regard. Maybe it was just the threat itself – EPIC have a strong record in these kinds of cases and have taken down Microsoft and Doubleclick. However I would like to think that the arrogance and energy of youth might be tempered with a bit more maturity and consideration in the future. If only, as I’ve said before, because Facebook is no longer a fresh young company in Web 2.0 terms and could easily be eclipsed by the next big thing. Perhaps they can hire someone more ‘real’ like Shaun White to tell them how privacy rights and user control of information would be like, totally rad, dude…

Woah man, I am so stoked about privacy... (Shaun White, not actually advising Facebook on privacy, pictured for Fast Company)

Woah man, I am so stoked about privacy... (Shaun White, not actually advising Facebook on privacy, pictured for Fast Company)

On a more serious note, EPIC put a lot of time and money into protecting privacy in the USA and they do a damn good job, and in cases like that of Facebook they are having a positive affect the world over, so give them some money!

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