Andy's insights

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Sun, 26 Feb 2012

Facebook Rant

As the people equate social networking with the internet — particularly one social networking service — I’m often asked if I also have such an account.

No I don’t. And I advice you to consider it too.

It’s not about social networking, social networking is a good thing. It’s all about joining a social network owned by a single company. It doesn’t matter which company, social network or even it’s business model. If 800 million people joining the same company we have basically a monopoly. But even if it’s smaller the social network provider gets an extremely valuable data set for each of it’s user. Like every company social networking providers have to maximize their profit and will do anything with this data as long as the users don’t get upset and laws are broken (and enforced). And just because the social network provider doesn’t misuse the data right now you never know if the will misuse it later. Or it is acquired later. Or the data will be stolen.

Let’s have a quick look at the Facebook business model: The customers are the advertisers. As far as known they don’t get access to the data itself (Facebook won’t give that away!), but are able to advertise to probably the best target groups available. So we seriously identify the 800 million users as products.

Only naïve users enter fill all available data. Careful users know that they should only enter data that could safely be public anyway. Well are you sure you can control that? What if the very connections only allow to estimate the follow attributes (there is some research in this direction):

So even if your profile data is bogus as soon as friends get added and you start to communicate you are not anonymous anymore. Probably those criteria gets more weighted than your profile data as you can’t easily influence them.

Social site users are blinded by the “privacy settings”: Of course you can only allow your closest friends to see your profile. Messages and photos can be marked as deleted that even you will never see them again. You may even have two accounts; a public one and a hidden one. But there is always the social service owner who is able to see all your data. Even the data marked as deleted: A few Austrian students forced Facebook to provide all data stored about them (this was possible due an European law). And they got it , including messages long marked as deleted.

Then there is the like button. You have to search a long time to find a website without one. Knowing that this button is usually implemented by loading the button image directly from it sends a session cookie back to Facebook. This allow to track the surfing habit nearly gapless. If an user is logged into Facebook the profile is connected. I call the like button Facebook bugging device.

I nearly signed up to Facebook a few years ago. But as one of the few who reads the terms of service I noticed that with sign up I pass over all rights to the data I enter and allow them to do anything with them. I didn’t sign up. I don’t do data prostitution.

Even if the terms of service are improved we already saw the real face of Facebook.

Imagine the possibilities to misuse the data a social network stores about an user. Insurance companies can estimate whether a person has been smoked or doped, do sport. The user may never be able to identify the underlying cause of the outcome of this risk estimate. Or maybe the cause for an application for a company denied was not a candidate more capable, but a dismissive comment about the companies product a few years ago to a friend in a private conversation.

We may now ask if I don’t have an account: Am I invisible to Facebook? No. I got invitations, some users may have uploaded their address book, including my address, and some may have tagged my on a photo. Even if I use the RequestPolicy to block the like button now, they may have already created shadow profiles for me.

Finally there is another big threat due a single huge social network. Have you noticed that each company, organisation, star, etc. must get their own Facebook site like to keep visible? It’s not sufficient to have a website to keep visible. And because every good marketing campain must have a Facebook link, they do free advertising for Facebook. And if you don’t have an account you can’t see a huge part of the internet. So Facebook is basically a private network within the Net.

This threats the very idea of the internet: Connect anybody with anybody using open and standardized protocols. While there are APIs allowing third party applications for Facebook they are controlled by a single party and can be changed whenever needed to keep control. Only standardized and open social networking protocols can ensure data ownership. Imagine you can connect to friends and communicate with them, provide status and control which personal data the others should be able to see. And still keeping control where your data is, because it’s your data. You install a piece of software on your server. Or if this is to complicated just choose a hoster of your choice. This is the very idea behind the Diaspora Project .

I’m not the only one thinking this way: The Seven Realities of Social Networking

posted at: 23:53 | path: /net | permanent link to this entry