Tag: privacy

The Facebook Disease: Real Identity, Radical Transparency, and Randi Zuckerberg

by on Aug.03, 2011, under general

Via Eva Galperin for EFF:


Speaking last week on a panel discussion about social media hosted by Marie Claire magazine, [Facebook Marketing Director Randi] Zuckerberg said,

“I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away. People behave a lot better when they have their real names down. … I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors.”

Let me note at the outset that Randi Zuckerberg was not completely wrong. People do tend to behave better when they have their real names – or, more specifically, their “real life” – attached to the things they say or do on the Internet.

That’s because shaming works. I don’t think that’s a controversial statement. And Facebook has gotten a lot of mileage out of shaming. They don’t call it shaming, of course. They have some fancy name for it – RealSocial or something, I forget – but Chris Kelly, the former Facebook Privacy Officer, used to talk about it all the time. Here’s him describing the policy in high-minded terms in The Facebook Effect:


We’ve been able to build what we think is a safer, more trusted version of the Internet by holding people to the consequences of their actions and requiring them to use their real identity.

So, premise: tying people’s online identities to their “real” identities will, through shaming and social norms, make them behave better, or, more precisely, more like they do “in real life.”

I don’t think anyone disputes that.

The problem is in the conclusion: that, because this premise is true, “anonymity on the Internet needs to go away.”

Eva, the author of the EFF post, already hit most of the usual (but worth reiterating!) points why the conclusion is total bullshit: because “activists living under authoritarian regimes, whistleblowers, victims of violence, abuse, and harassment, and anyone with an unpopular or dissenting point of view that can legitimately expect to be imprisoned, beat-up, or harassed for speaking out” benefit from anonymity and pseudonymity (which the Facebook policy also prohibits). It goes without saying that anyone with an elementary education – and I mean literally an elementary education, we’re talking Federalist Papers here – should be able to appreciate the importance of hiding your name in order to speak your mind. And it goes without saying that we should all be glad that Randi Zuckerberg is not part of the IETF.

But I’d like to make one other connection here.

This fetishization of onymity (yes, that is the antonym of anonymity!) is not an isolated blemish on the face of Facebook. It is but one of several symptoms of a deeply rooted disease: Facebook’s love of radical transparency.

Read danah boyd on Facebook and radical transparency before you read any more of me, but the practical upshot is that Zuckerberg – Mark this time – has said repeatedly that, basically, the world would be better off if everybody was open about everything all of the time, and that anything short of that was a “lack of integrity”.

Now, anyone who has read their boyd, Warner, Goffman, Meyrowitz, or even Jarvis (or even me) will realize how almost unbelievably dumb – or shall we say “conceptually incoherent” – this statement is. No one actually lives like that. That’s not how social norms work. That’s not how privacy works. And Zuckerberg, of course, does not himself live a radically transparent lifestyle either, or else you’d be able to see a whole lot more on his Facebook profile.

But I want to underline the fact that the Zuckerbergs are not merely wrong in their pathological obsession with radical transparency and “real identity.” They are wrong in a way which actively hurts people. Again, not to crib too heavily from boyd here, but there are reasons why things like pseudonyms and privacy settings matter. They don’t really matter to people like the Zuckerbergs – people who have money, education, protection, and prestige. They matter to the subaltern.

Think about it for literally one second. What it means to be “radically transparent”, and how it affects one’s lived experience, depends entirely on one’s position in society. More concretely: being “radically transparent” about, say, sexuality, means very different things to a straight male student and a closeted gay student in a homophobic, conservative high school context. That’s a very simplistic example, but a very powerful one. And dismissing those concerns is more than merely incorrect. It harms those who are the most vulnerable.

If you ever wondered why Facebook is one of the most hated companies in America, you can stop now. The answer is evident. It’s captained by fools – or brigands. And when (not if) the karmic collapse comes – when something finally arrives to take Facebook’s place – there will be no love lost for it.

Nor will it deserve any.

e: a Facebook employee who I know and trust sent me some thoughtful comments via email. Without quoting them in full, they boil down to: despite whatever crazy things the Zuckerbergs might say to reporters, we engineers actually spend a lot of time trying to work within the existing privacy infrastructure, and to make it better as we can.

And I believe that’s true. Facebook has actually has pretty powerful privacy settings for a long time, even if they are hidden and poorly publicized. But I don’t think (most) of the rank and file engineers at Facebook are into radical transparency. I think they are basically smart people working on a really tough and complex piece of software, and they’re trying to keep it working and keep making it better, and don’t have enough time to make grand announcements about anonymity or really set policy going forward.

I just think the fish is rotting from the head.

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Finally Getting It

by on Jun.28, 2011, under general

Computerworld, on Google+:


However, what Google hopes will set its social network apart from Facebook and the smaller social networking services is that Google+ is set up to allow users to communicate within separate groups of their online friends. Instead of posting an update that goes out to everyone, Google+ enables users to create “circles” or groups, such as a user’s poker buddies, college friends, work colleagues and family members.

Now a user can communicate separately with each group.

“The “circles” idea makes a lot of sense,” said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst at Technology Business Research. “It’s smart, and while you can do something similar in Facebook, it’s not Facebook’s main thing. It’s not as easy to do.”

From Google itself:
Screen shot 2011-06-28 at 4.19.18 PM


You share different things with different people. But sharing the right stuff with the right people shouldn’t be a hassle. Circles makes it easy to put your friends from Saturday night in one circle, your parents in another, and your boss in a circle by himself, just like real life.

Called it.

e: from the Times:


“In real life, we have walls and windows and I can speak to you knowing who’s in the room, but in the online world, you get to a ‘Share’ box and you share with the whole world,” said Bradley Horowitz, a vice president of product management at Google who is leading the company’s social efforts with Vic Gundotra, a senior vice president of engineering.

Architecture metaphors and everything!

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So Facebook Failed At Groups

by on Oct.08, 2010, under general

A few days ago I posted about the new Facebook privacy “features”.

One of them – “Groups” – Facebook had described as such:

With Groups, users can essentially partition their interactions (passive or active) with Facebook and create multiple, customized Facebook experiences. For example, a user who participates in a “neighborhood” group can – with one click – view a newsfeed that is visible only to members of that group, post status messages that only members of the group can see, and peruse a list of profiles that includes only group members. This new functionality will make it much easier for groups (lowercase “g”) of friends to keep in touch and will likely accelerate the use of Facebook as a platform for organizing everything from bake sales to protests.

And I said this seemed “inoffensive enough.”

Well –

Facebook is being battered by critics who say the popular social network made a big mistake in failing to let people opt-in by default to its new feature that lets people form private groups around a particular interest.

The controversy reached a head on Thursday when a person created a group called NAMBLA, the name for a nefarious pro-pedophile organization, and started adding friends.

One of the person’s added to the group was well-known tech blogger Michael Arrington, who in turn added Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, Chester Wisniewski, a senior security adviser for security firm Sophos, reported on the company’s blog.

While not actually from NAMBLA, the group was formed to make the point that Facebook was wrong in choosing to let people automatically add their “friends,” and leaving it up to the added person to opt-out of the group.

via InformationWeek.

So Facebook can’t even let users click “yes, please let my friend add me to this group” before doing it.

How can one company fail at variations on the same thing so many times?

(cynic: because it is their intent to fail)

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EFF on New Facebook Privacy Policies

by on Oct.07, 2010, under general

Grimmelmann passed along the EFF’s take on the Facebook privacy changed I blogged about yesterday. The EFF had a much better breakdown, critique, and set of recommendations – it’s a good read.

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Facebook Privacy Changes

by on Oct.06, 2010, under general

It’s been a month or so, so Facebook has announced some new privacy changes. CDT has the breakdown:
(continue reading…)

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CQ Researcher

by on Sep.17, 2010, under general

I was (fairly extensively) interviewed for the CQ Researcher’s newly-published white paper on privacy and social network sites, authored by the inestimable Marcia Clemmitt. Unfortunately, it’s behind a serious paywall, so I can’t post it here – but there’s good stuff in there from the usual crowd, and hopefully it will serve as a useful guide to the sorts of folks who subscribe to CQR.

Which leads me to…

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orkut adds groups.

by on Aug.31, 2010, under general

Google’s orkut gets the right idea:

Imagine Sarah, a 21 year old girl who just created an orkut profile. To get started, she adds her college friends to her friend list. They share photos, join communities, exchange scraps, discuss everything that’s hot on campus. A few days later Sarah finds out that some friends from high school are also on orkut and adds them: what’s better than keeping in touch with old friends?

Then Sarah gets her first job and adds her office colleagues to orkut: you can’t decline a friend request from your boss, can you? Sarah’s social network keeps growing. Even her parents, aunts, uncles and cousins are on orkut, and she adds them to her friend list.

The college gang, old friends from high school, office colleagues, family, everyone is in Sarah’s friend list now. Soon enough she will not be able to share anything with anyone anymore – after all, jokes and photos from the office party should be shared only with her work colleagues. Scraps and photos of her baby nephew at the family reunion should only be seen by members of her family. The plans for Saturday night and the photos of the parties she went to should be seen only by her party friends – Sarah does not want her boss or her young cousin to see those.

Just like Sarah, we all maintain different groups of friends, and the Internet was not able to reflect that. Until now, social networks treated people from different groups like they were all the same: they were all “friends”.

So we asked ourselves: does it need to work this way on the Internet? Can we reproduce our groups of friends from real life on the Internet? The answer is “yes!” Starting today, we will change the core function of orkut so we can share and interact with different groups of friends on the Internet just like we do in real life.

At least someone has the right idea.

Sorry for the lack of blog posts lately – the admissions cycle is starting, which means my blogging will probably become somewhat infrequent over the coming months.

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Facebook Places Privacy Settings

by on Aug.19, 2010, under general

When Facebook announced its places feature, you may have wondered “hrm, how long will it be before this undermines my privacy?”

Nick O’Neill at AllFacebook has some observations:

One feature that has attracted a fair amount of buzz is the ability for your friends to tag you in different places. That means you may not actually be somewhere, yet your friends will tag you as a joke and now you’re showing up at a random strip club.

While you may be fine with Facebook’s existing Places privacy settings, I know there are plenty of friends on Facebook who I don’t want to track my location.

One strange thing about Facebook Places is that despite controlling who can view your location information from within your profile with the previous setting, anybody who visits a location will potentially be able to view that you’ve been there before.

Nick runs through the ways to change your privacy settings. It’s worth the read, but here’s the short version:

  • Go to the Privacy Tab and click “Customize Settings”
  • Change your settings. For example, I disabled allowing my friends to check me in elsewhere, and noone can see where I check in.

I’m not big on the whole locations movement. Maybe you are, and that’s fine. But if you aren’t, Facebook just pitched you a curveball by opting users into the Places feature, so here’s how you opt out.

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Facebook’s ‘Google Killer’ – The Right Stuff?

by on Jul.07, 2010, under general

From AllFacebook, on a presentation by Google on a rumored new social utility:

The overall theme of the presentation was consistent: we have multiple groups and within those groups there are individuals who we have strong ties with and many more who we have weak ties with. There are also even temporary ties, like the person at the restaurant who served you food last night. While getting the system right on this is extremely difficult, the strong vs. weak ties is something that Facebook has yet to enable users to control.

If Paul Adams’ presentation is accepted as one of the primary perspectives of Google on social, perhaps the argument for Google’s new “Facebook killer” would be that there needs to be a more effective user-interface (UI) which helps users to control these various groups. Rather than dismissing it as a service for “advanced” users, perhaps the interface has simply not evolved far enough to give users the actual control that they want.

That would support the argument presented by Paul Adams in the slide below which states “If your privacy practices aren’t transparent, then you introduce doubt. Doubt leads to lower usage.” Only Facebook knows how great of an impact the latest privacy fiasco had on the company but it’s clear that Google sees this as a weakness.

If this is true, then Google has precisely the right privacy perspective to outflank Facebook on this issue. And they’re about the only company with the muscle to do it.

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Thoughts on Facebook Privacy Reform

by on May.28, 2010, under general

Two days ago, Facebook rolled out new privacy tools in a blog post by Mark Zuckerberg.

On balance, the privacy revamp represents a net benefit from where we were in the last few months. For example, Facebook has finally returned to users the ability to control basic information such as whether or not complete strangers can see your hometown.

Additionally, their new privacy dashboard (as illustrated below with a picture from the site):



Is a helpful way for people to begin to visualize what is available to whom if they select one of Facebook’s settings.

But – as is so often the question in policy problems, from health care reform to financial reform to Facebook – the question is not whether the reform is better than what we had, but actually “good enough” to be truly praiseworthy. By way of analogy, of course it’s better to throw a rope to a drowning man than to not throw one at all, but if he is 10 feet from your boat and the rope is two feet long, the effort may not be as laudable as it initially appears .

What more could Facebook have done? It could’ve made Instant Personalization Opt-In. It could’ve integrated some of the great tools like the Facebook Privacy Scanner or Zesty.ca profile mirror. It could’ve shown people what they currently are sharing and tweak it from there on the Dashboard, as opposed to simply giving them four options to pick from (although the four options are good for simplicity’s sake). Finally, it could’ve announced these changes in a big box on everyone’s News Feed – or forced them to visit the new privacy page the next time they visited the site – rather than hiding it in plain sight on the Facebook blog, which almost none of its users read.

I’m not pointing these things out just to complain about Facebook – I’m pointing them out to demonstrate how much Facebook didn’t do in their privacy reform. That doesn’t mean I don’t approve of the changes they did make – I do. But to understand the full context of Facebook’s actions, one must understand what they did and didn’t do. And in that respect, it’s still the latter that is far more striking.

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