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Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Thank you, Facebook! (No, really - thank you)

Facebook has done more for digital privacy awareness than any other company in the short history of the internet, and I mean this to be a sincere statement.

One of the most significant problems to date has been getting anyone outside the tech world to care about the privacy implications of third party embedded web objects (more concisely: web tracking).

Actually, a bigger problem is trying to rationalise what those implications are - what does the social cost/benefit equation look like? What are the actual risks to society? (Please answer without referencing the Stasi, Stalin or Nazi Germany.)

Instinctively I don't like such tracking.  Knowledge is power, and I think immense data collection and retention puts large technology companies in a powerful position of control over us all.

But there's a balance, both between an empowered public, governments and corporations, as new technology has given us all new powers; and between the very real social benefits data sharing can bring.

No-one knows for sure whether the benefits of tracking, storing, linking and publishing data about our online behaviour will endanger democracy or bring huge social benefit, and what Facebook have done in announcing OpenGraph is bring the debate into the public sphere.

Essentially, OpenGraph is a feature that allows users to add information about websites they visit outside Facebook into their Facebook timeline.  James Firth is browsing Whining Girl Music on Amazon -> Emma Firth hates this and suggests he swaps Beth Orton for Muse.  

Read more about OpenGraph and the implications here.

Facebook can do this because of the way some websites add a "Like" button to their web pages.  If a website operator chooses to integrate scripts supplied by Facebook, Facebook essentially gets notified each time someone visits that website.  And if the visitor has a Facebook account, Facebook can link the owner of the account to the specific pages on the "partner" websites visited.

Facebook want to do this for one simple reason: money.  Integrating information from disparate websites such as news websites and shops will bring new opportunities to sell advertising and pay for the free service so many of us use.

Yet I still use Facebook, and I'm not about to quit.  It brings me benefits - even though the majority of the benefit offered is by virtue of the fact it's the place where my family and friends hang out.  If they move elsewhere, Facebook offers me very little.

What the current privacy storm has done is highlight to Facebook's users what data is being collected behind the scenes about them.  OpenGraph doesn't start collecting more data about Facebook users - the data was already being collected behind the scenes.

And not just by Facebook.  Google through its advertising service DoubleClick have been tracking users across partner websites (essentially any website displaying Google Ads) for years in order to offer tailored advertising.  That's why a week after I booked a holiday to Turkey last year I was bombarded with adverts for Turkish holidays. Perverse!

And Twitter is not off the hook.  They have their "tweet this" and "follow" buttons, which in theory could be tracking users in exactly the same way, but silently.

The publicity will also highlight potential implications for partner websites embedding third party objects.  Does the inclusion have implications for their users? And is the inclusion of such objects compatible with local data protection laws?

Whatever the rights and wrongs of such practices, transparency and education is a vital first step to having an open debate about the benefits, risks and rewards of linked personal data. 

If we don't know what's being collected about us, we can't understand the risks of using any given service.

There's a beautiful democratic balance in Facebook and social networks, in that if the users vote with their feet, their power vanishes.

Let's make everyone aware of what websites are doing with their data, so that people can choose whether or not to use these websites and services.


Postscript:

The issue is complicated further by reports that signing-out of Facebook won't stop the tracking.  If you don't want to be tracked at all but don't want to ditch Facebook, you need to delete all cookies each time you log out, or install one of a number of browser plug-ins designed to stop the tracking.  Alternatively, install a second web browser on your computer, and use one browser for social networking and another for ordinary web browsing.





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