Facebook and the Meaning of “the Default Is Social”

’s practices continue to be in the news.

The BBC reports that has promised to simply the privacy controls.

Meanwhile, Aditya Chakrabortty, writing in the Guardian, reminds us of why this stuff is important by recalling this story:

In summer 2006, AOL did something unprecedented in the history of the internet: it published a database showing what 658,000 members had searched for over three months. A mammoth exercise, this was also one of the most uncynical ever undertaken by a billion-dollar company – AOL shared the information for free, in the hope it would help researchers understand how people were using the web. It was also scrupulous about the confidentiality of customers. All subscriber details were scrubbed out, so that a login such as LimpCourgette223 became drab old User 338765. The only thing left was a list of 20m search terms.

Except that list, coupled with a little patience, was all anyone needed to yank down AOL’s privacy screen. A couple of New York Times journalists showed how easily it could be done. Trawling though the hundreds of searches made by Subscriber 4417749 for local estate agents and gardeners, through to “numb fingers”, “dog that urinates on everything” and “60 single men”, they tracked down Thelma Arnold, a 62-year-old widow and pet-owner from Lilburn, Georgia. “My goodness, it’s my whole personal life,” she said as the reporter read AOL’s search records to her. “I had no idea somebody was looking over my shoulder.”

Over the weekend, On the Media explored Facebook’s approach to privacy in an interview with Wired.com’s Ryan Singel, Mr. Singel thinks that there’s much more to Facebook’s approach to privacy than those screaming that “Facebook is evil” realize. He thinks Facebook and its staff are convinced they are the vanguard of new norms of social relationships, noting that Mark Zuckerberg has turned down big bucks from companies wanting to buy Facebook. (Follow the link to read the transcript or listen to the interview):

Singel: This isn’t about the money. And (Zuckerberg) really wants to sort of change the world, and he really wants that Facebook page to be the place that people define themselves to everyone else online.

On Tuesday, Facebook’s public policy director, Tim Sparapani, said something that was, I think, a bit of a slip, when he said that the personalization that Facebook has offered to all the websites on the Internet – that they can add these “Like” buttons or add profile pictures from Facebook – he called that an “extraordinary gift to the public.” I think they really think that they’re doing this amazing thing for the public and we’re not thankful enough.

Frankly, I find Zuckerberg’s statement that “the default is social” misrepresents what is going on; it may be a sincere statement but, given Facebook’s desire to be, in Singel’s phrase, “the biggest display advertiser on the Internet,” making the default “social” does not benefit me as a user.

The persons I allow to see my Facebook page via my privacy settings are the persons I’m interested in (of course, as a blogger, I pretty much let everyone in unless they are trying to sell me something, while I’m careful about what I post there).

The persons Facebook is interested in allowing to my information aren’t random web surfers or my “Facebook friends.” It’s the advertisers who are willing to pay for that access.

Facebook’s default isn’t social. It’s sellable; the less protected, the more sellable.

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