Facebook: the treacherous boundary between public and private

I declare myself to be a “Transparency Extremist”; but I am not in favour of total transparency. We are, after all, entitled to a private life.  I favour extreme transparency in public life, which means that no organisation should hold any secret from its members. The members of a nation are its  citizens; of a corporation, its  shareholders.  But as individuals, what we do behind closed doors, in the privacy of our own imagination, is ours.

So to our personal information: stuff about us, and about the stuff we do in our private lives and share with our friends and family.  This is ours; and it is valuable. Of course, we share it. There is no point in having a phone number if you don’t tell other people what it is – that sort of information is only useful if it is shared. Most of the stuff we put on Facebook is there because it is more useful for being shared with our Facebook circle of acquaintances.

People have trusted Facebook with this information and have got substantial benefit from it; but now Facebook wants to use it for other purposes – specifically, to provide it to its marketing partners.  Given that most Facebook users pay nothing for a service they find very useful, is is not surprising and perhaps not unreasonable that Facebook should wish to use this personal information in consideration of the service that they provide. In fact, that’s not a wholly unreasonable bargain – if it were explicit, and made clear from the beginning.  What is devious, however, is not making it clear at the start; and what is reprehensible is treating your customers (because, even if they don’t pay, Facebook users are its customers) with the contempt that Mark Zuckerberg appears to have shown.

Privacy, and people’s expectations of it, can’t just be swept under the carpet. It’s true that we will continue learning how best to manage our online identity  -from the early days of “on the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog”, to the present of verified Twitter accounts – and attitudes to privacy will evolve. But our private information isn’t a public good to be expropriated by whichever state or  megacorporation thinks it can get away with it; it’s ours, and the megacorporation which understands and respects this will deserve and get our custom far more than one which doesn’t.

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