A war on privacy

September 03, 2014

Today I read a great piece by Richard J. Anderson about Facebook, where he makes an interesting point:

I tried giving up Facebook once before only to end up sucked back in. Why? It’s simple: Facebook is where all my friends are. If I want to keep in touch with them, in any way, I’ll have to be on Facebook.

I just don’t have to do it on Facebook’s terms.

He goes on to explain his way to deal with Facebook’s privacy-invading tactics,1 and he gives some solid advice if you’re interested in doing the same. At the end of the day, though, I’m not sure fighting the way Facebook works is the best approach.

Let me start by saying, I’m no Facebook fan. Far from it. I use it very much like Anderson does, mainly to stay in touch with people I’ve met over the years and for whom I have no other contact information. Facebook works really well for that, and so I use it. That’s pretty much it.

It is in part because I have no love for Facebook that I understand where Anderson is coming from. The idea of a shady corporation tracking our every move with obscure intentions is certainly unsettling. And yet, the more I think about it, the more I realize Facebook doesn’t make for a great villain.

What is it that Facebook wants? It’s simple: they want to know everything there is to know about you so that they can show you ads you’re more likely to click on.

Ads. That’s all there is to Facebook’s evil plan. It is, of course, understandable: companies like Facebook are, after all, businesses, and they need to make money to survive. Running a social network, especially one as huge as Facebook, is crazy expensive.

Here’s a big problem that plagues every social network:

  • Everybody wants to use them because they add value to their lives and/or personal relationships.

  • Everybody wants them to be free.

  • Nobody wants to see ads.

Of course, that’s impossible. Something has to give. And if we’ve learned anything from it is that premium, paid social networks very rarely ever work, even if the product is good. The problem is, once you start out with a free service, it’s much more difficult to get people to pay.

So, that leaves ads.

However, it’s not enough to show ads, you must actually get users to click on them, and for that you must know as much about them as you possibly can. It’s only logical, then, that all social networks would use the information they have on their users in order to target them with “better” ads.2

Even so, you may argue that there should be limits on what type of information these companies are allowed to collect, and I absolutely agree. To me, tracking users once they leave your site is going a step too far, and yet both Google and Facebook do it with impunity. In that regard, the Do Not Track Me extension that Anderson mentions in his article may be a good solution. Browser vendors should also provide some form of built-in protection against that. Or perhaps we should simply remember to log out of Facebook before closing the tab. And if we forget to do that then, let’s face it, it might be because deep down, it doesn’t really bother us as much as we thought.

There’s this notion in the tech community about the evils of social networks and other ad-based services like Google’s. “If you’re not buying anything then you’re the product being sold”. I’m sure you’ve heard it before.

But what is it that bothers us so much about being shown ads?

I believe this is an issue that gets blown way out of proportion within the aforementioned tech community. The rest of the world doesn’t care. They really don’t. Ask any of your friends whether they prefer to see ads or pay $10 a month to use Facebook. See what they tell you.

Sadly, regular people don’t value their privacy nearly as much as we do.

For example, my personal rules for interacting on social networks (actually, on all of the Internet) are simple:

  1. If I’m not comfortable with everybody on the Internet knowing about it, I do not share it.

  2. There’s no step 2.

To me it really is that simple. Anything I willingly share is fair game, and I’m OK with that. And if they use it to show me ads, then so be it. It’s still a small price to pay for the convenience we get out of these tools.

What doesn’t make sense to me is trying to keep using these networks without disclosing any personal information for the sole purpose of avoiding being tracked or being shown ads. I suppose it’s technically possible, but it’s just too exhausting. I know it because I, too, have tried. It’s like going to a restaurant and only ordering side dishes to avoid paying for your meal. You can do it, but it’s kind of missing the point.

Whether we like it or not, social networks need our information to survive. And so, they will show us ads, and they will try to know more about us. If we’re going to use them at all, we should be OK with that. This will be true until the day we’re willing to start paying money for them. But let’s be honest, the odds of enough people suddenly deciding they want to start paying to use Facebook are pretty slim.

We can try to keep them at bay, and I’d go so far as to say that it’s our responsibility to ensure they don’t cross the line into creepy territory, but that’s no small task. If we absolutely don’t want to grant them access to our personal information then the only sensible choice is not to use them at all. But as Anderson says, that’s not a realistic approach because well, everyone else is still using them.

For all the bad press Facebook gets about their privacy issues, their real power lies elsewhere. Paraphrasing the great Verbal Kint:

The greatest trick Facebook ever pulled was convincing the world they needed to use it.

And like that… we’re all screwed.

  1. Of which there are many.

  2. Better from the advertiser’s point of view, of course.