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Is Facebook Evil? January 15, 2008

Posted by CamdenKiwi in : Internet,Politics , trackback

A thinkpiece by Tom Hodgkinson in the Guardian yesterday raises some interesting points about Facebook, and he certainly makes his biases very clear with his opening sentence. “I despise Facebook”.

To the prejudices first. Hodgkinson is clearly one of those people who thinks that Facebook is somehow seeking to replace normal human contact. If I send a little ungrammatical note to a friend one day, I will probably be down the pub with them the next. Except of course, my mother in New Zealand who loves playing scrabble and my mate in Glasgow with a penchant for sheep-tossing. If Facebook helps me keep in touch with friends outside London, is that really so bad? Yes, there probably are sad people who spend too much time with it instead of going out, but then I spent Saturday night with YouTube, a glass of wine and the cat. It’s January. It’s cold. Noone’s got any money. And I found a very good, if rather disturbing play starring the exceptionally gorgeous David Tennant. Worked for me, but I digress.

Some people may compete about the number of friends they have, or ‘construct artifical representations of who I am in order to get sex or approval’. If Hodgkinson thinks Facebook is unusual in that, then he’s not spending enough time in bars.

That Facebook is fundamentally a way of collecting users and data about them to allow well-targetted marketing is not news, though there is a definite danger in people allowing too much data to be freely available. It’s free for users, is not a charity and so has to make money somehow. In fact, Facebook knows a lot less about me than Amazon does. Amazon has huge amounts of data about my reading, music and film-watching preferences, and it uses this to send me emails about books, CDs and DVDs I might like to buy. Its emails are sufficiently on the mark and interesting that I read them. I also take its suggestions and buy them from Foyles. If Facebook can do that, rather than send me advertisements for products to increase the size of organs I do not possess, its fine by me, and a small price to pay for the service they provide.

If you give all your ‘id card information and consumer preferences’ to Facebook, you are opening yourself up to advertisers, of course. Facebook doesn’t even have my address. It knows I’m a ‘fan’ of Dr Who, but I wouldn’t touch the ill-fated Beacon. It knows less about my buying habits than Amazon or House of Fraser. It does have access to my Pandora and StumbleUpon accounts, so it perhaps knows my music tastes and has some idea of sites I like. If it can construct a well targetted campaign out of that, all power to it. At least its ads are small and easily ignored.

Hodgkinson makes a big deal out of the privacy policy on Facebook. It would be worth his looking at a few other website’s privacy policys. Outside the remit of the Data Protection Act, noone on a free site is going to take responsibility for guaranteeing that your data is secure or that the government can’t look at it. And its rather sensible of them to explain that deleting something on the internet is not what it seems. Stuff is cached all over the place – in the browser, in google and other search engines where sites are open to them (which Facebook is not), in proxy servers, in other machines on your ISP or employer’s network. If you want to opt out of privacy policies like facebook’s, you probably have to opt out of the internet.

And finally, we come to the point of the article. The venture capitalists funding Facebook are a pack of ultra-libertarians with some fairly extreme views. Is this really surprising? Its venture capitalism, where people with money take big risks to make more. I imagine a great many venture capitalists operating in internet based businesses are down that end of the spectrum. Take a look at the other companies supported by the VCs funding Facebook, Accel Partners, and Peter Theil who manages Founders Fund. Without the firms these people fund, the web would be a very different place. No flash, no real audio, for starters.
Worse still, Accel PArtners shares a director with the CIAs venture capital firm. This isn’t a covert operation, sneaking arms into petty dictatorships. Its an outfit which explains on it’s website that the CIA fund it, and that it is about ‘accelerating information for the intelligence community’. Not sure I’d want them investing in my company, but that’s academic, and they’re very open about what they are. And they haven’t invested in Facebook.

The fear is that sites like Facebook are somehow replacing the ‘real’ world with a virtual world in which mega-capitalism controls everything.

Do they replace the real world, or do they enhance it? Surely, that depends on how you use them. If all your friends are on Facebook, and your main way of interacting with them is via Facebook then you would have a big problem. But if you use it, as most people seem to, as just another tool, then it is hardly such an issue.

Companies which provide the software infrastructure which others use, like Facebook, Ebay, aspects of Google, Myspace and all the rest are building the web, and yes, some people are making enormous amounts of money from it. They are assuming a level of power which is not desirable in a liberal society.

This is a serious problem, but opting out of Facebook won’t make any difference. It is far deeper than Facebook, and to really insulate oneself from it, one would have to opt out of the web. And probably banking, Oyster card use and most interaction with the government. Now, there’s a libertarian position.

There’s a lot to think about in here, but loading it onto Facebook isn’t the answer when the problem is in fact with the whole system. Personal ownership of personal data would be a good first step, as would better acceptance of non-advertising based models for website use.

As we move into an increasingly online age, that’s a problem that needs resolving.

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