Computers, Privacy & the Constitution
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The Price of Facebook

-- By JessicaGuzik - 12 Mar 2012


The dangers of Facebook’s ability to track our personal data continues to become more apparent, yet most users continue to use this and similar on-line services despite their implications regarding the loss of our privacy. For me, this raises a major question that I want to explore: why do consumers of Facebook so readily relinquish their personal information in exchange for this, and similar, social networking services?

These two blowsy sentences could be one compact question: "Why, despite the evident dangers, do users of Facebook and similar services give away their personal data to social network operators?" That would save fifty words for other purposes and improve the introduction. You still need to strive for economy.

I hypothesize that my generation is so accustomed to the conveniences and benefits that we believe we are getting from these types of services, that we overvalue the harm that would result from our choosing to disconnect from these services. This dissuades us from unplugging even in the face of violations of our privacy. I therefore want to explore other potential arguments to persuade a non-privacy-conscious generation that the use of these services is not in our interests as consumers. In this paper, I focus on the opportunity cost of relinquishing our personal information to a third party for free. I argue that we are giving third parties valuable information, and we should therefore at least question whether access to their social networking services is adequate compensation for the handing over of this information.

But you've already said that the conveniences and benefits are important. And your question assumes that there are necessary trade-offs between social networking services and privacy protection. The situation is graver if that's true, But you present no evidence, and I don't think it is. So I'm left wondering how far your analysis can help.

The Challenges

Generation Y’s Misconception of Privacy

I hypothesize that my generation in particular has a hard time grasping the concept of privacy, because most of us are not familiar with a time in our adult lives when social media did not play a role in our social interactions. We are less hesitant to relinquish information via the internet because we have a lessened awareness of the fact that we are “sharing” this information with anyone besides our acquaintances. We have been deprived of the opportunity to experience a life in which our personal activity was restricted to the physical realms in which we experienced it. Privacy has a different meaning to us than it does to the generation that precedes us.

Maybe. But this is only hypothesis; one might expect you to offer something in its support. I'm not sure it's true; I think "the preceding generation" would have behaved the same way under the same stimuli.

More Problems: the Difficulty of Unplugging

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that we find it difficult to imagine living our day-to-day lives without sharing our information with third parties and having access to the information of others as a result. As Mark Zuckerberg was quick to recognize, there was a type of social craving that couldn’t be satiated in the absence of a service like Facebook.

Sure it can. The desire for social networking is not indistinguishable from the desire for social networking that spies on its users. Facebook's "man-in-the-middle" attack on the Web is not functionally necessary to have sharing with our friends and acquaintances, or even with friends of friends. The "give everything to me and I'll manage it for you," centralized version of the service is like having the World Wide Web with one server. It isn't necessary, it's just bad. So we're not required to choose between having social networking and not being spied on. As I explained more than once in class, we're also not required to "lose our friends" in order to fix the problem. Social networking done right could begin by giving us a transition in which we don't have to stop sharing with people who use FB, Flickr, etc. Over time, we can transition together, as a whole, softly, from bad sharing to secure sharing. That was the idea behind the project called Diaspora, whose authors tried to implement my ideas on the subject, along with many other "federated social networking" projects, one or more of which will eventually succeed and swallow up Facebook, safely.

Our desire to share our own information while simultaneously being able to access the information of others is a powerful one, and our use of Facebook to satiate this borders on addiction. Even for those who want to unplug, these third parties do not make it easy. The process of removing oneself from Facebook went from being very simple back when the website was first created, to being complicated enough to confuse a significant number of Facebook users. Whether we desire it our not, getting our virtual selves out of this realm of cyberspace is not a straightforward matter.

Perhaps not individually. But collectively it's simpler than it looks to you. How it looks to you should be closer than it is to how it is, because I tried to teach you, but did not succeed, evidently, as well as I had hoped.

The Economic Value of Our Internet Presence

If our understanding of privacy is incomplete or if we overvalue the cost of dissociating ourselves from the social media sphere of cyberspace, then the loss of privacy argument seems moot to us. For a generation accustomed to instant gratification and convenience at the click of the mouse, the dangers of relinquishing our privacy are difficult arguments to sell to us. For the purpose of persuasion, it may be valuable to explore a different approach for evaluating the price we pay to use Facebook. This begins with undoing the false notion that Facebook is “free.” Facebook is only free in the most obvious sense of the word, and this is because the company chooses not to charge users money to access the service. Without users’ activity on the site, there is no way to generate revenue other than to charge users to create an account. It is our personal information that lies at the base of the website’s profitability. And in exchange, we get free use of the service. We are essentially purchasing access to this service using our personal data as currency. Given the multiplier effect that occurs when these services gather enough data to fill in the information gaps that exist, the economic value of our on-line activity is significant, and goes beyond the face value of the information that we choose to hand over. This aggregation effect seems to dampen the effects diminishing marginal returns that one might ordinarily expect. This makes sense given that information is not subject to diminishing marginal returns in the same way that other commodities are. With Facebook’s valuation approaching $100 billion, it is difficult to imagine that the economic value of our activity and information is insignificant.

And yet, as I pointed out in the course of the term, FB's initial public offering documents show that it makes a paltry $4.40/year per active user, which suggests that the returns available on your "Internet presence" by legitimate means are extremely small, and the costs of providing alternative services that don't depend on spying are not very great.

If we could avoid the middle-man and sell our own information straight to third parties, how much money might it command on the open market? Because we’re allowing websites like Facebook to step in and conduct the transaction for us, we should question whether we are giving Facebook an excessive commission. Is free access to a social networking service adequate compensation for forgoing participation in a market that allows consumers to extract economic value through strategic disclosure (or non-disclosure) of their information? This raises the possibility that tools like the freedom box could be used to protect more than our privacy – perhaps the ability to control who receives our personal information and how they receive it may allow us to protect the economic value of our personal information. I recognize that such an approach may run counter to the goal of protecting our privacy in many ways, and may introduce an entirely new set of social and political ills. But as I continually observe the difficulty of getting Generation Y concerned about the privacy issues that we face, I seek out a solution that may appeal to a population that has a hard time appreciating the importance and meaning of privacy.

These should have been links in the text. They are not a particularly impressive set of sources, as I'm sure you can see. Since when is citing TV journalism the conduct of research?

My concern about this draft is that it seems to depend on factual assumptions which, though they could be true, are not supported, and are contrary to other factual propositions I put forward, and defended, in class. I can be wrong, of course, but I would be more persuaded if I saw some actual engagement with the ideas I presented. Two points are central here, both of which I doubt: (1) FB's form of social networking is necessary if we ar to have social networking at all, or to avoid having to go "cold turkey" in withdrawal from our existing ties; and (2) there is much legitimate money to be made on the on-line activity of social sharing, by ad-brokerage or other "acceptable" uses of the spying. FB shows the enormous disproportion between the real money made by ad brokerage and the value attributed to operation of the database: the difference is the value of the illegitimate or dodgy uses foreseen, and the implicit value of the relationships with intelligence and security services around the world. I don't see how its actual operating results demonstrate a great untapped economic value in peoples' private lives that would justify advising them to sell themselves out. The Devil has never really given high prices for souls; he's waited until low prices seemed high. I'd be happier about this draft if I thought it was based on the knowledge necessary to help people see the difference.

I think I was going in the wrong direction with this paper. What I was trying to say, but didn't succeed in saying, was that I don't think there is much hope to get people off of Facebook (regardless of whether it's off social networking entirely, or just off this particular social network), because I don't think people outside the realm of our classroom and a limited number of other people even realize that privacy issues exist in the first place. And even when you try to explain it to one of these people (at least just my own experience), people don't seem bothered by it at all. It seems really, really hard to get the message across in any kind of meaningful way. So I started to think either (1) people don't get it, or (2) people get it, but privacy isn't important to them. If people don't care about privacy or if they don't understand it (not understanding it is what I was focusing on here), then it doesn't matter what you try to tell them - no argument is going to work. Plus, when you add in the fact that facebook is pretty addictive to begin with, that's even more of a force purshing against making users question it. It seems like when people love something this much, it's hard to make them see that it could be bad. So I was trying to think of a way to convince people to question it and become more skeptical without using the privacy argument, because I don't think the privacy argument has the right kind of mass appeal to do something as powerful as getting people to give up something they love (ie, facebook). I also don't think it's powerful enough to even get people to switch off of Facebook and onto a different site...I think Facebook's consumers are very, very sticky. So I thought...what would people value more than Facebook? If they had to choose between Facebook and something else, what would be the "something" else they would pick that they like better? Facebook satisfies a desire that is in my opinion, extremely powerful. All I could think of that could hold a candle to facebook, if privacy isn't want people care about, is money. Everyone loves money and it's pretty tempting...maybe as tempting as the strange social satiation that people get from Fracebook. So this draft was my initial attempt to say that maybe we can use money to make people rethink things if privacy isn't what they care about.

But I don't know if there's even a point to exploring that, I'm not sure how practical it is. I am really committed to the idea that you can't make people care about something unless they care about it, and I don't think there's more than a small minority out there who care about this issue. I think people are wrong not to care about this, but that doesn't change the fact that when I speak to intelligent people about what I've learned in this class I get replies like "well, it can't be that bad if we're all in the same boat."

I think for people to start caring or start understanding, something really bad would have to happen first. I was trying to think of a new way to prevent that from happening without relying on legal protections, and all I could think of was money.

In terms of your comment regarding getting Facebook's users off Facebook and onto a non-spying social network, how would we do that? How do we convince them to leave behind the virtual worlds that they've built on Facebook and start from scratch? Facebook is no longer just a place to connect with people - it's becoming a place where people are creating a visual imprint of their lives. The new timeline seems to me to be getting right at people's sentimentality. A person's profile is no longer just a series of sequential photos, comments, and facebook is coming in and changing the layout of the profile reminding us when we got married, when we got our first job, when we had our first baby, etc. I don't even know and don't want to know how facebook deals with death, but I'm guessing it is or will be used in a similar way to build upon peoples' inability to separate their physical selves from the virtual world of this website. Even if everyone can rebuild this in a new and safer space, how do we get people to leave this all behind in the first place?


Webs Webs

r4 - 11 Jan 2013 - 21:48:51 - IanSullivan
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