Synthesize these two articles about social networking privacy threats using identifying tags.
YOU ARE NOT FACEBOOK’S CUSTOMER
(CNN) — The ire and angst accompanying Facebook’s most recent tweaks to its interface are truly astounding. The complaints rival the irritation of AOL’s dial-up users back in the mid-’90s, who were getting too many busy signals when they tried to get online. The big difference, of course, is that AOL’s users were paying customers. In the case of Facebook, which we don’t even pay to use, we aren’t the customers at all.
Let’s start with the changes themselves. Until now, the main thing that showed up on users’ pages was a big list of “updates” from all the friends and companies and groups to which they were connected. It was a giant chronological list that made no distinction between an article (like this one) that may have been recommended by a hundred friends and the news that one person just changed his relationship status or had a funny dream.
Facebook has now prioritized that flow of stories into a news feed that puts “top stories” on top, and the more chronological list of everything down below. Top stories are selected by an algorithm of some sort that “knows” what will be important to the user based on past behavior and numbers of connections to those recommending the story, and so on.
Meanwhile, as if to make up for this violation of the what-just-happened-is-the-only-thing-that-matters ethos of the social net, Facebook added a live, Twitter-like stream of everything everyone else is doing or saying. It runs down the right side of the screen, almost like CNN TV’s awfully distracting and wisely retired “news crawl.”
On an Internet where everyone and everything are becoming “friended” to one another, such a division of the relevant “solid” bits from the topic stream of data points makes sense. After all, updates from your closest friends and favorite bloggers should take priority over those from some relative stranger you “friended” because he said he was in your fifth grade class and you didn’t want to insult him. If everyone ends up connected to everyone, Facebook will have to make some distinctions or the service will be useless.
But users are bothered by all this. On the simplest level, they don’t like change, particularly when it results in making their free time more complex and stressful. Facebook was always a lazy person’s friend and time waster. Turning into a dashboard designed to increase productivity and relevancy turns it more into, well, work.
Of course, if they stopped and thought about it, they would realize that Facebook is work. We are not Facebook’s customers at all. The boardroom discussions at Facebook are not about how to help little Johnny make more and better friendships online; they are about how Facebook can monetize Johnny’s “social graph” — the accumulated data about how Johnny makes friends, shares links and makes consumer decisions. Facebook’s real customers are the companies who actually pay them for this data, and for access to our eyeballs in the form of advertisements. The hours Facebook users put into their profiles and lists and updates is the labor that Facebook then sells to the market researchers and advertisers it serves.
Deep down, most users sense this, which is why every time Facebook makes a change they are awakened from the net trance for long enough to be reminded of what is really going on. They see that their “news feeds” are going to be prioritized by an algorithm they will never understand. They begin to suspect that Facebook is about to become more useful to the companies who want to keep “important” stories from getting lost in the churn — and less useful for the humans.
Ultimately, they don’t trust Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg and are suspicious of his every move. By contrast, Apple founder Steve Jobs took away his customers’ hard drives, Flash movies, keyboards and Firewire ports — and yet consumers put up with the inconvenience and discomfort every step of the way because they believed that Steve knew best, and trusted that he was taking them somewhere better.
Apple users pay handsomely for the privilege of putting themselves in the company’s hands. Facebook does not enjoy this same level of trust with its nonpaying subscribers.
That’s because on Facebook we’re not the customers. We are the product.
Why we need a privacy label on the internet
As Facebook and other internet companies deal with the fallout from security lapses before and after the presidential election, lawmakers are increasingly concerned that lax oversight is resulting in major violations of Americans’ privacy. When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before two committees earlier this month, even GOP lawmakers typically opposed to regulations said new rules to restrict the actions of Facebook and other internet companies may be necessary.
That’s a bad idea. Restrictions may help establish better metes and bounds around privacy and security practices, but there will still be privacy lapses or security breaches due to, among other things, employee negligence, systems failure and the violations of agreements and those laws. Hackers and foreign governments will still find ways to infiltrate systems. We can’t stop everything, and any such legislation cannot keep pace with technological developments or individual creativity. At worst, new rules would hamper innovation and threaten our competitive advantage in the digital world.
But we can make consumers better informed about how a website could or could not use their data. In fact, there’s a good historic analogy for such a policy: the food label, which was created more than 50 years ago and refined over time. It now provides consumers with simple, easy-to-understand information about their food. We could create a new label to provide similar information about a website’s use of their data. This “privacy label” would be a light-touch way of putting privacy information into consumer’s hands without unreasonably hampering industry.
A privacy label could offer the same sort of important information without banning certain practices or chilling innovation. Right now, websites like Facebook and Twitter do offer “terms and conditions” and privacy policies that explain what information will be collected and how it could be used. But those sheets are filled with legalese. The length and terminology of legal disclosures are, in fact, important to protect the company (and oftentimes the consumer, too) but their complexity cuts against the goal of informing a consumer.
It will take time for consumers to get used to a “privacy label,” but there was a time when a food label was foreign territory for consumers. Over time, and with the aid of legislation in 1966 and 1990 as well as stakeholder participation, educated consumers have learned to use food labels to learn about important information in their meals, such as calories, sodium or sugar. Consumers are not forced to look, but the information is there in a relatively clear and conspicuous fashion.
As the food labeling laws developed, and labels accepted by the public, some industry players have gone beyond legal requirements, using their own symbols to emphasize material aspects of their products in a simple, clearly stated method. The key is that through a combination of regulation and industry action, consumers have been provided more access to information to make a reasoned purchasing decision. It’s not a perfect solution — and it does not translate exactly into a data privacy solution — but there is some precedent that creating an easy-to-understand label would be an improvement on the current system.
In 2009, eight federal agencies created a model privacy notice form designed to make it easier for consumers to understand how financial institutions collect and share consumer information. The form identifies specific scenarios in which a financial institution can share consumers’ personal information, whether or not the institution actually shares the information, and whether consumers can prevent the sharing. There are also opt-out boxes where a consumer can prevent the financial institution from sharing their information. While the form can still look fairly legalistic and threatening to consumers, the shorter, uniform format and prominent disclosure presents a step in the right direction.
It wouldn’t be that hard for Congress to pass legislation directing federal agencies, in concert with leading trade and privacy organizations, to create a privacy label that provides that information in an understandable form. A prominent box in a regular position on a website could provide “Yes/No” answers to key questions on the use of personal information, such as whether the operator of the site uses or discloses personal or behavior information to market the products and services of other companies. From the box, consumers could then click directly to the specific detailed information. By reviewing the privacy label, a user could — before interacting with a particular site or service — have the opportunity to review the privacy practices of the site.
As with a food label, a privacy label would not ensure that the consumer is reasonably informed, but it would give the consumer the reasonable opportunity to be informed about a critical decision point. You can only tell a horse there is water there!
Providing a clear and prominent answer to the commercial disclosure question does not mean we should eliminate legalese, privacy policies and terms and conditions entirely. Those will likely still be necessary for a company to state necessary facts, such as that it will disclose information in response to a subpoena and that reasonable security measures are in place to protect that data. While disclosure of these and other factors are important, they appear to be far less crucial to a consumer than the commercial use of personal data.
A short-form disclosure to consumers may not be a perfect solution, but it would educate consumers without overly restricting internet companies. A privacy label, like a food label, would be a meaningful improvement over the status quo, providing important information to consumers in a clear and concise fashion and allowing them to make an informed choice about how websites use their personal information.