Facebook Isn’t Evil, We’re Just Naive

So Facebook is no stranger to privacy criticism. But between trying to become the default social web and Mark Zuckerberg declaring the end of privacy, the social network is coming under more fire than ever. In fact, accusing Facebook of being drunk on dreams of world domination, Wired’s own Ryan Singel recently put out a call for an open alternative.

But the pitiful reality is that Facebook isn’t evil (well, at least not categorically). They’re behaving just as “responsibly” as we’d expect any private enterprise to: they’re trying their darndest to establish a monopoly in their marketplace.

It just so happens that they’re in the business of trading/selling our data. But there’s nothing forcing us to give it to them, so we should stop sniveling about consequences of our own reckless whims and accept that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Freedoms, Privacy, and the Media

If you live in a Western liberal-democracy, then you enjoy a whole bunch of rights that are protected under the law. And chances are that those rights include some degree of privacy, and freedom of speech and freedom of expression, and so on. But even though they’re protected under the law, those rights and freedoms have their limits.

Take your privacy rights, for example. Once you leave the privacy of our own home, so many of them go out the window.

For instance, once you’re in a public space, a journalist can snaps photos and shoot stock footage of you without your permission because (1) you’re in a public space, and (2) they have freedoms of the press that allow them to document the world around them. Similarly, if you enter onto private property, such as a shopping mall, it is perfectly legal for you to be subject to CCTV or other surveillance systems.

So when you’re not in the privacy of your own home, your privacy rights are limited.

And take freedom of speech and freedom of expression. In a liberal-democracy, we all have the right to express ourselves. But that doesn’t entitle us to access to broadcast media.

We are all entitled to share our thoughts with our friends, family, and colleagues. But if we want to broadcast those thoughts in print or over the airways, we need to raise the financing ourselves – just like any other private media enterprise.

The point is that the rights and freedoms that we have as private individuals are limited to the privacy of our individuality. Once we leave the confines of our homes or try to exercise those rights on a wide scale basis, they are seriously limited.

No Free Lunch: Facebook & Privacy

Coming back to Facebook, there are three reasons why we shouldn’t expect complete and utter privacy protections: (1) the Facebook community is a privately owned space beyond the confines of our own home; (2) Facebook is a media platform that we are not entitled to under the law; and (3) Facebook is a service provided by a private enterprise that has to turn a profit.

First, Facebook does not belong to any of us. It belongs to shareholders. And those shareholders can dictate any terms of entry they like. In this case, accessing Facebook requires that we share personal data. If we don’t want to share that data, then we just have to forego using Facebook. That is all.

Second, social networks are just another wide scale media, like television or newspapers. Although they facilitate our freedoms of expression, speech, and assembly, they are not integral to them.

There are still plenty of other ways for us to interact with other people; they’re just not as convenient. So if Facebook wants to make relinquishing our privacy a condition of accessing their platform, they are entitled to do so.

Finally, Facebook’s is a profit driven enterprise whose revenue model is based on user date. The only reason they can offer their service free of charge is because they can aggregate their users’ data and use it to offer marketing services. If their default was privacy, their business model would collapse, and there’d be no more Facebook.

The Face of Privacy

In the article calling for a open alternative to Facebook, Ryan Singel pointed out how Facebook’s popularity has demonstrated that “We want easier ways to share photos, links and short updates with friends, family, co-workers and even, sometimes, the world.” The only problem is that we are not willing to pay for it.

Facebook is one of those services that hit critical mass because it is free to use. Had there ever been any cost barriers to registering with the site, it would’ve never taken off the way it had.

The catch is that there is no such thing as a free lunch. As with every free online service, we must expect that there are strings attached to our using them. So, just as we have certain privacy rights under the law, we must also waive those rights when we want to enjoy someone else’s private property.

That being said, it seems that if most Facebook users were given the choice, Facebook would have to be a bit more prudent with their personal data. Of course, the only way that Facebook users could be offered the choice would be through an alternative to Facebook.

The question that remains is twofold: (1) is user disenchantment sufficient to justify a viable competitor to Facebook? And (2) how could such a competitor foot the costs of development if they weren’t selling their users’ data?

The likely answer to both questions is “no.” Rather, what we can probably expect to see is Facebook to continuing to probe the privacy limits of its users until they strike that happy balance between lip-service privacy protection and record profits.

About CT Moore

A former Staff Editor here at Revenews.com, CT Moore is a recovering agency hack with over a decade experience leveraging search, social media, and content marketing to help brands meet their business goals online. He currently provides digital strategy consulting to start-ups, SMBs, enterprise level companies through his consultancy Socialed Inc.. CT is also an accomplished blogger and speaker who educates groups and companies on how they can better leverage different online channels.

Twitter: gypsybandito

27 Responses to Facebook Isn’t Evil, We’re Just Naive

  1. Josyan says:

    Great points!

    I've personally never been opposed or naive to Facebook's business model. They are a business and have shareholders to be accountable to – I totally get that.

    The larger issue for me, lies with the average non-tech-savvy user who is interested only in this fun game named Farmville everyone's been talking about and unknowingly leaves their privacy at the default settings (i.e., totally open).

    Facebook (as well as other social networks) needs to communicate clearly about how they handle privacy and, more importantly, make that crystal clear to their everyday users. Expectation is everything online and it's tied directly to trust.

    Once that is achieved the balance will be back and everyone will know exactly what to expect.

  2. CT Moore says:

    I don't know if I fully agree with you about what Facebook "needs to" do. I think that with Freedom comes responsibility, and social media has most certainly given us much more freedom to communicate than ever.

    The flip side is we are now responsible for our own data/privacy. So I think that the responsibility lies with users to educate themselves (and their friends & family) about the risk and costs of using social media.

    Besides, even if Facebook was completely upfront about how they treat data, how many users would actually read the documentation? How many of us actually read any TOS before checking the box next to "I have read and agree with the TOS"?

  3. Christina says:

    As the old saying goes — they're paying for the band, they can pick the music. Facebook is free to the user. They have no obligation to us. If we were paying customers, there would be some level of service agreement expected.

  4. Tom O'Brien says:

    I don't think FB is so much "evil" as they are "stupid". As an organization FB depends on the goodwill of both users and advertisers – and the recent changes they made are in DIRECT opposition to the best interests of both.

    Trees don't grow to the sky, and tides turn quickly in the SocNet space. See MySpace.

    Tom O'Brien

    MotiveQuest LLC

    @tomob

  5. Very naive post.

    What you miss in your "it's free and it's capitalism so deal with it" argument is that Facebook didn't start off with their current TOS. It has changed dramatically over the last four years as FB went from venture capital to searching for an independent monetization system based on advertising to very specific channels of data/people.

    I have no problem with that search for a stable monetization setup or with their current TOS.

    What I do have a problem with is how FB has changed that TOS. If FB had started as the service it is today, things would be different.

    Facebook has also done a terrible job with its evolving privacy controls. Have you stepped into the privacy/3rd party/friends sharing settings lately? It's intentionally obfuscating… and that's evil. Opt-out rather than opt-in? Really? Even those of us in the (often evil) affiliate marketing industry figured out that was a terrible paradigm five years ago.

    Lastly, Facebook is not free. The data, information and advertising dollars that people "pay" to Facebook is far more valuable of a currency than $9.99 a month. The "it's free so deal with it" argument really is over in the current web economy. Link and attention is the new Euro and Dollar.

    That's my 2 cents… I mean 2 bits.

    Sam

  6. CT Moore says:

    @Sam Harrelson, thanks for the insult.

    Now, I didn't read FB's TOS back in the day, but the last I checked, it's pretty standard practice to include a clause in any TOS stating that the TOS are subject to change at anytime without notice.

    If their original TOS had such a clause (and it probably did) then the onus falls upon us to check back with their TOS and keep up on changes.

    And you're right: FB is not free. That's why I said that there's no such thing as a free lunch.

  7. Chris Cree says:

    I think the issue is more in the perceived bait-and-switch that Facebook has done on privacy coupled with the confusing array of privacy settings than the fact that FB is leveraging users data.

    Sure they have every right to change the rules whenever they want to. It's their house. But, from a business perspective it's generally unwise to upset those responsible for your revenue. And while the advertisers foot the bill, without a thriving engaged user base there is no audience to advertise too.

    They loose the trust of their users, the will users stop using their service and their revenue will fall. Ultimately it will boil down to their own integrity, which starts at the top with Zukerburg. That's being questioned now. If he's got integrity then Facebook will do just fine. If he doesn't, they are ultimately doomed.

  8. No insult intended… I'm just extending your naive title to your points in this post as well.

    We'll agree to disagree, but I encourage you to do a little research on the TOS of web apps and social networks if you're going to hinge a major point of a post on them.

    Sam

  9. Adam says:

    >>Facebook (as well as other social networks) needs to communicate clearly about how they handle privacy and, more importantly, make that crystal clear to their everyday users. Expectation is everything online and it’s tied directly to trust.<<

    Exactly. Facebook goes to the extreme when making data pubic. It's not just provided in aggregate for advertising targeting, more and more it is put out on the public web for anyone to see and use who is not a "friend" or an advertiser. Every time they make a change it should be summarized in a box when the user logs in and stay there till the setting is adjusted or the notice is dismissed.

  10. CT Moore says:

    @Chris Cree,

    I agree with you. The bait-and-switch is bad business sense. As I pointed out:

    The question that remains is twofold: (1) is user disenchantment sufficient to justify a viable competitor to Facebook? And (2) how could such a competitor foot the costs of development if they weren’t selling their users’ data?

    Of course, having bad business sense doesn't make you evil, or a criminal.

    BTW, this just came across my feed: "60 Percent of FB Users Mulling to Quite" http://www.pcworld.com/article/196861/

  11. CT, did you just use the Spider-Man defense in your first comment back?

    Sam, I think that's a well laid out argument. However, I do feel that CT is right that consumers often naively "believe" in the benevolence of the brands they interact with. Doesn't mean that the brands shouldn't be socially responsible. But in our capitalistic society they rarely are, unless of course, they need a tax write off.

    But your own argument about link and attention being the new Euro and Dollar implies the naivety of users. Of course the data is more valuable. Users need to understand that the more data they surrender to any third party the more privacy they lose. That understanding is a social shift.

    However, the way Zuckerberg has gone about it is wrong. And I agree that we were smart enough to figure this out in affiliate marketing years ago. My suspicion is that "opt-out" privacy settings as a default will go the way of "opt-out" settings when it comes to email in shopping carts. Whether the community will insist on it or the Feds, like CAN-SPAM is yet to be seen.

    2 bits back at ya 🙂

  12. Adam says:

    Here is the evolution of privacy on Facebook:

    http://mattmckeon.com/facebook-privacy/

    Here's a new initiative to hand people control of their data once again:

    http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/196017994/dia

  13. Kammy says:

    I agree with Chris Cree, that its the "bait and switch" issue that is most annoying and hard for people to follow. I know plenty of users that would have never STARTED using the service if the TOS were then what they are now.

  14. Completely agree, Angel.

    BTW, we're all making gross stereotypes of "normal users" and that's another variable we don't account for in this thread or in CT's original post.

    By and large, my 8th grade students (who use Facebook religiously) are surprisingly alert of the privacy changes and opt-out (though they wouldn't use that word) nature of FB's ecosystem.

    If anything, we're raising a generation of web users who will be very savvy when it comes to privacy and link-economies.

    I guess since they can't hack their computers anymore (thanks, Steve Jobs), they will start hacking their privacy 🙂

  15. @kammy and @chriscree

    Is it really "bait and switch"? All companies, all websites for that matter state that their TOS can change at any time. It is the matter of such documents and part of the legal landscape. Why should users expect Facebook to consult with them prior to such a change. To even be transparent about it is rare.

    Companies adapt and evolve. Users have the right not to engage with them if they don't like the direction the company takes. It should be a simple thing to vote with your feet, or clicks.

  16. I'm seeing striking parallels between Facebook today and Microsoft in the 90s. While the arguments about business models and our responsibility to understand what we're agreeing to share are valid, we also can't overlook that business success requires responsible business practices.

    Do Facebook's shareholders really believe it's a wise business decision to continue tweaking the nose of customers and governments? Microsoft's willingness to tweak played a direct role in the lawsuits filed by both the American and European governments. If you get big enough and snotty enough, you make an easy target for a legislator looking for a campaign platform.

    If Facebook's first responsibility is to its shareholders, those shareholders should be asking the question about the long-term sustainability of a business that's constantly moving the expectation goal line. In the same way that Firefox rose up to challenge Internet Explorer, aren't Facebook's decisions creating an environment ripe for anarchy in its backyard? From a business perspective, Facebook's changes to its TOS seem to create a level of long-term risk that shareholders need to challenge.

  17. Tom O'Brien says:

    @Sam

    Talk about naivete –

    "Lastly, Facebook is not free. The data, information and advertising dollars that people “pay” to Facebook is far more valuable of a currency than $9.99 a month. The “it’s free so deal with it” argument really is over in the current web economy. Link and attention is the new Euro and Dollar."

    Let's see, if FB could get $9.99 per month per user that would be almost $50 Billion in revenue per year. Do you really think they are going to get that much by brokering data?

    TO'B

  18. Some good points raised by all.

    While i agree that in a western democracy we all like to think that we should be completely responsible for our own actions, the reality is that some regulation is required to safeguard the interest of people – most of whom aren't fully aware of the consequences of their actions.

    Just look at what's happened in the credit lending industry or offshore oil drilling and we can see that we are in a time when a little regulation could have gone a long way towards safeguarding the public interest.

    As a business, Facebook would have no interest in putting any restrictions on its business model – the exchange of data. But neglecting what's truly in the best interest of its users and advertisers will ultimately taint the brand. As the poster boy for social media and privacy concerns, Facebook must be seen to be more proactively managing this issue, rather than constantly reacting to pressure from government and media.

    Patrick Gladney

    @pgladney

    Facebook: The new face of evil
    http://socialcurrency.nsresearch.com

  19. Your logic is faulty there, Tom.

    If FB were to charge $9.99 a month, they wouldn't have 400 million users. A much smaller userbase would mean much smaller revenue per year numbers than your "$50 Billion."

    Look at any web app that offers premium/freemium models if you need to see numbers on that sort of thing.

    FB is playing long term and understands that links/attention/advertising is a much more profitable play than premiums when it comes to mass adoption of a platform.

    Sam

  20. Wayne Porter says:

    Sam,

    I don't think the article was naive per se and I appreciate your poetic segue. It is simply reinforcing the current economic paradigm. A paradigm that many of us know is shifting.

    @Sam I must object to your use of labels like "evil". Their actions are a product of the system.

    I believe there is no free lunch. Every action incurs some type of cost. Even Open Source has a cost- someone gave up time and energy to create the project.

    Unfortunately Facebook has incredible traction among the masses. This has always been their goal. I realized this after having a debate with one of their reps about "Dunbar's Number" at a conference a couple years ago.

    As Sam points out, they have attained this mass by not charging up front.

    @Tom The real value is not just data, but analyzing interactions. Need to self-reflect? Take a look at ad units on the right side of the screen…it can tell you alot about yourself, or at least what their algorithm thinks about you. Is this valuable? Yes it is very valuable.

    What Facebook needs is a competitor, because it is and always will be damn hard to teach a corporation ethics. Not because they are evil, it is because they are corporations.

    @Patrick Good points 🙂

  21. Wayne-

    Your precious "Dunbar Number" died in the Snow Crash, dude.

    Welcome to the 21st century where we all know each other for 15 seconds.

    Sam

  22. Wayne Porter says:

    Dunbar's Number is a merely a reference point @Sam. I don't think it is a "gold-standard" by any means.

    At this point technology merely augments the abilities provided by our neo-cortex. A neo-cortex which remains what it is- relatively small, yet too large for our cranium.

    @wporter

    PS On "Welcome to the 21st century where we all know each other for 15 seconds."

    This is why beer might be the great equalizer…

  23. Tom O'Brien says:

    @Sam

    No sh*t sherlock. I'm not the one who said that FB could change $9.99 per month.

    I agree that FB is playing long term – just that by violating the trust of their advertisers and members they aren't doing it very smartly.

    TO'B

  24. Marcus says:

    I believe this post is a false argument (largely). It may sound good and get some folks riled, but, it misses too many points.

    First, private corporations are subject to US and State Laws (meant to protect the taxpayers). Countries such as Canada even have Cabinet-level "Privacy Commission." A private company cannot do anything it wants; it must act within the Law.

    Private (and Public) companies can become regulated when they constitute a monopoly or act irresponsibly.

    Think of the Tobacco companies.

    Think of the Pharmaceutical companies (do you think they like all those disclosures on every ad).

    Think of how Fast Food restaurant Ads MUST shoot real burgers, not silicon replicas.

    Frankly, FACEBOOK targets Minors and is addictive. So, guess what? They will have to amend their ways if they are going to remain wholly unregulated.

    FB are appropriating data from children without parental consent (when, digital data is no different than a tattoo, and a kid must have parental consent to get a tattoo). They are changing Terms and Conditions in a manner more complex than the average User is familiar with (OK, apparently, they are already trying to fix that).

    So, it's not about the User's being naive. It's about whether Facebook acts in a manner it's Users can trust; since, FB's value is derived based on appropriation of User data. To date, Facebook management appear less than trustworthy. We'll see if they change.

    Regardless, nothing lasts forever on the internet. And, Facebook will be forgotten, along with Compuserve, AOL, MySpace, etc.

    Defending Facebook by claiming User's are solely responsible for their own education in this issue simply won't fly. Ask the ad agencies who produce burger commercials. Ask the tattoo parlours. Ask the tobacco companies.

  25. Steve says:

    Some good points raised by all.

    While i agree that in a western democracy we all like to think that we should be completely responsible for our own actions, the reality is that some regulation is required to safeguard the interest of people – most of whom aren’t fully aware of the consequences of their actions.

    Just look at what’s happened in the credit lending industry or offshore oil drilling and we can see that we are in a time when a little regulation could have gone a long way towards safeguarding the public interest.

    As a business, Facebook would have no interest in putting any restrictions on its business model – the exchange of data. But neglecting what’s truly in the best interest of its users and advertisers will ultimately taint the brand. As the poster boy for social media and privacy concerns, Facebook must be seen to be more proactively managing this issue, rather than constantly reacting to pressure from government and media.

    Patrick Gladney
    @pgladney

    Facebook: The new face of evil
    http://socialcurrency.nsresearch.com

  26. […] to stay connected, but we don’t realize the cost. And I’m not just talking about the privacy costs. I’m talking about our mindshare, […]

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