If Facebook were honest

The first and foremost privacy principle in any data protection regime is Collection Limitation. A classic instance is Australia’s National Privacy Principle NPP 1, which requires that an organisation refrain from collecting Personal Information unless (a) there is a clear need to collect that information; (b) the collection is done by fair means, and (c) the individual concerned is made aware of the collection and the reasons for it.

In accordance with the Collection Principle (and others besides), a conventional privacy notice or privacy policy should give a full account of what Personal Information an organisation collects (including that which it creates internally) and why it collects it.

And herein lies a fundamental challenge for most online social networks: if they were honest about the Collection Principle, they would have to say “We collect information about you to make money”.

The core business model of many Online Social Networks is to exploit Personal Information, in many and varied ways. There’s a bargain for Personal Information inherent in commercial social media. Some say the bargain is obvious to today’s savvy netizens; it’s said that everybody knows there is no such thing as a free lunch. But I am not so sure. I doubt that the average Facebook user really grasps what’s going on. The bargain for their information is opaque and unfair.

From the outset, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was tellingly enthusiastic for information built up in his system to be used by others. In 2004, he told a colleague “if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard, just ask”.

Facebook has experienced a more or less continuous string of privacy controversies, including the “Beacon” sharing feature in 2007, which automatically imported members’ activities on external websites and re-posted the information on Facebook for others to see. Facebook’s privacy missteps almost always relate to the company using the data it collects in unforeseen and barely disclosed ways. Yet this is surely what Facebook’s investors expect the company to be doing: innovating in the commercial exploitation of personal information. An inherent clash with privacy arises from the fact that Facebook is a pure play information company: its only significant asset is the information it holds about its members. The market expects this asset to be monetised and maximised. Logically, anything that checks the network’s flux in Personal Information — such as the restraints inherent in privacy protection, whether adopted from within or imposed from without — must affect the company’s futures.

Facebook’s business model is enhanced by promiscuity amongst its members, so there is an apparent conflict of interest in the firm’s privacy posture. The more information its members are willing to divulge, the greater is Facebook’s value. Zuckerberg is far from a passive bystander in this; he has long tried to train his members to abandon privacy norms, in order to generate ever more information flux upon which the site depends. He is brazenly quick to judge what he sees as broader societal shifts. Interviewed at the 2010 TechCrunch conference, he said:

[In] the last five or six years, blogging has taken off in a huge way and all these different services that have people sharing all this information. People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time. We view it as our role in the system to constantly be innovating and be updating what our system is to reflect what the current social norms are.

It is rather too early to draw this sort of sweeping generalisation from the behaviours of a specially self-selected cohort of socially hyperactive users. Without underestimating the empirical importance of Facebook to hundreds of millions of people, surely one of the over-riding characteristics of OSN as a pastime is simply that it is fun. There is a sort of suspension of disbelief at work when people act in this digital world, divorced from normal social cues which may lead them to lower their guard. Facebook users are not fully briefed on the consequences of their actions, and so their behaviour to some extent is being directed by the site designers; it has not evolved naturally as Zuckerberg would have us believe.

Yet promiscuity is not in fact the source of the most valuable social data. Facebook has a particularly sorry history of hiding its most effective collection methods from view. Facial recognition is perhaps the best example. While it has offered photo tagging for years, it was only in early 2012 that Facebook started to talk plainly about how it constructs biometric templates from tags, and how it runs those templates over stored photo data to come up with tag suggestions. Meanwhile, the application of facial recognition is quietly expanding beyond what they reveal, with the likes of Facedeals for example starting to leverage Facebook’s templates, in ways that are not disclosed in any Privacy Policies anywhere.

Privacy is largely about transparency. Businesses owe it to their members and customers to honestly disclose what data is collected and why. While social networks continue to obfuscate the true exchange of Personal Information for commercial value, we cannot take seriously their claims to respect our privacy.