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Are Facebook's Views on Privacy 'Naive and Utopian?'

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Although an attempt to marshal support for “Quit Facebook Day” appears to have more or less fizzled, the social network continues to fight the perception that it either doesn’t care about privacy or hasn’t been diligent enough in giving users a way to control their private data, despite the recent changes to its privacy settings. In the latest move, a member of the House Judiciary Committee sent the company a letter on Friday saying he’d like more information about its privacy policies, and is considering holding a committee hearing into the recent changes.

Communications studies professor Nancy Baym said in an interview that she thinks one of the biggest problems for Facebook is that it has a “fundamentally naive and Utopian” view of what privacy means online, which stems from the fact that the company is run by “a bunch of computer science and engineering undergrads who don’t know anything about human relationships.” Baym, who teaches at the University of Kansas, also writes a blog called Online Fandom, where she wrote recently about why she hasn’t quit Facebook despite her concerns about the way it handles private information. She said it’s ironic that Facebook “understands so little about human communication, since it has built what is effectively the largest interpersonal communication network in the world.”

David Kirkpatrick, in his new book “The Facebook Effect,” quotes the social networking site’s founder and CEO as saying: “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly,” and that “having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” Such a statement, according to Baym, is not only fundamentally naive, but indicates just how privileged Zuckerberg as a wealthy, white, heterosexual male really is — in other words, someone who has nothing to fear from being transparent about his life, and no need to maintain two different identities. As Baym put it:

I don’t think having different online personas has anything to do with a lack of integrity — it’s a reality of human interaction. Why shouldn’t people have the right to connect with people who share their political beliefs but share different things with their colleagues at work? We can go to work but also go to political meetings outside of work hours…This is like having to go to one building and do everything there.

Transparency of the kind Zuckerberg is recommending, Baym said, may be fine for someone like the Facebook CEO or any of the other senior executives at the social network, but it might be a different thing entirely for someone who’s gay and doesn’t want that information to become public for fear of reprisals at work. In that case, she said, having two different identities online is simply a matter of self-preservation. Baym — who has her own book coming out soon called Personal Connections in the Digital Age — also noted that Facebook as a corporation doesn’t follow the same kinds of rules about transparency that it wants its users to obey:

I would buy this whole philosophy about having a commitment to sharing because it makes the world a better place if Facebook did more of that themselves. Why don’t they livestream all of their meetings? Instead, they have top-secret meetings about all of this stuff and don’t tell anyone what happens in them until after they’ve made a decision.

Of course, Facebook isn’t advocating that users share all of their information in the way Baym suggests, so perhaps expecting the entire company to do so is a little unfair. But the professor also said she finds it offensive that Facebook continues to change its tune as to what’s public and what isn’t. For example, users were previously able to keep their friends lists private, but Facebook recently made them public by default (although it later responded to criticism of this move, and changed its options to allow friends lists to be hidden). “It’s a huge ethical problem,” she said. “They keep changing the rules. That’s what really bothers me.” For what it’s worth, Zuckerberg said after announcing the network’s most recent changes that he didn’t foresee changing Facebook’s privacy guidelines again for a long time.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): Could Privacy Be Facebook’s Waterloo?

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Crunchies 2009

13 Responses to “Are Facebook's Views on Privacy 'Naive and Utopian?'”

  1. Franz

    Zukerberg naive and too geeky to understand human communication? he’s geeky enough to know what people can do with his personal data and the danger of posting personal information online, therefore his FB is empty and he called users dumb fcuks. You think it’s due to naivety that FB reset your privacy setting again and again? no, they need to be heavy handy to push their users to share more because that’s their business model, the more you share and like, the more data they have on you, and they can sell you more ads.

  2. hotrao

    Facebook views on privacy are “utopian” and are mainly the result of two concurring factors:

    on one side the utopian concept of anything available to everyone, that underlies the concepts of responsability in charging datas and using them. If this assumption was true, we won’t have no spam, frauds,…
    on the other side Facebook management being non capable of managing what is a real complex architecture on IT POV. As I said other times, if you consider for a moment the risk that “maliciuos” people are around us trying to do something strange with our datas, as the owner/manager of Facebook you have the due to leave apart thoughts of freedom and equality and make barriers to defend datas given to you.

  3. Professor Baym is correct in her insight on privacy, the problem is that the everyday user is completely unaware, or simply does not care about this issue (that is until it affects them personally), and FB knows this.

    They change their privacy and experiment all the time to see how far they can push the envelope.

    Two years ago they tried Beacon, received a lot of backlash and withdrew the idea from public view. Today we have Beacon 2.0 re-packaged as a playful LIKE button and everyone is going gaga over the innovation.

    I think this is a great article but my one remark is that FB is not at all a tech driven company, far from it. FB is rather an incredibly sophisticated marketing and PR engine that is churning user registrations and inching closer to big brother dominance.

    Internal secret meetings, bait and switch revenue models, smoke and mirrors press releases, it all has a very uneasy feeling to it; like author Ray Bradbury’s title suggests, “Something Wicked This Way Comes.”

  4. It seem somewhat presumptuous of Nancy Baym to say that the FB founders don’t know anything about interpersonal communication. For example, I could say that she doesn’t know anything about how I like to communicate. I’m generally fine with FB’s policies, and I’ve always put stuff on Facebook with an understanding that nothing on there is really private anywhere – does that mean I don’t understand how people like to communicate either?

    Where FB should always be pressed on is explaining fully what its policies are. Users can then react however they wish, and FB will respond in a manner consistent with its goals.

  5. Professor Baym is stating almost word for word the same things I’ve been saying for weeks now. I’ve been shocked by the lassitude, even by some of the commmentators I usually respect, like Tim O’Reilly, on this matter.

    It’s as if it’s all just a big joke, like people’s lives aren’t really being affected. The thing is, FBs size at 500M people is now such that political scrutiny will inextricably linked with FB from now on. The EU countries take these things a lot less lightly.

  6. “it has built what is effectively the largest interpersonal communication network in the world.” – apart from email and telephones. However I agree with the rest of her points.

    Email and Telephony also illustrate the fundamental brokenness of the current social networking model – I can change email or telephony provider and still communicate with my friends, but I can’t move from Facebook to Myspace and still share with my friends. It’s like the early AOL and MSN which tried to keep everyone inside their walled garden.

    You might be able to interconnect between Facebook and other services, but your account is stuck with them unless you want to lose those connections

  7. Two things, one is that their revenue model is tied somewhat to how open the web is in exchange and ease of access to information and secondly Facebook is trying to really change how we communicate online but the only problem is that humans have a a long evolution and a history of how we communictae and with whom we communicate and how we act in society and changing this online is going to be difficult if not impossible. In real life we communicate with those we have trust in so changing the privacy laws on line does not really work, so I fully agree with you there that there is some problem in how they understand human communication