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Ognjen Regoje
But you can call me Oggy

I make things that run on the web (mostly).
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Is it all Facebooks fault?

#ethics #opinion

Apparently Facebook expects to be fined $5b over ‘privacy issues’ which that got me thinking about those ‘privacy issues’.

First off, I’m definitely not a Facebook fan. I do have (a deactivated) account and have used it very little even though I’ve had it for quite a while. Even for development I use the company accounts. I can see the utility, however, and definitely am not an anti advocate by any means. I don’t find it useful but if others do all the more power to them.

With that said, I never understood how people could so willingly (and carelessly) share such large amounts of data about themselves.

It all started with “Likes”. This person likes this band. This person likes this book. This person liked this, do you like it too? Then it started getting more and more personal.

What’s your date of birth? Where’re you from? Where do you live? Where do you work?

Then others were encouraged to post information about you: who’s this person? Since you know this person, do you know this person as well?

It always bothered me.

It seems that over time this over-sharing got normalized to the point that it’s now considered entirely the responsibility of the companies.

It seems that there is so much pressure on these companies, and there should be, but there is nothing, or very little, on the users’ side. No education, no support, no responsibilities.

To draw a scarily apt comparison, think about heroin. Heroin is regulated, in that it’s illegal. Heroin dealers are persecuted. At the same time though, the users’ are educated about it’s negative effects. The users themselves are aware of what should and shouldn’t be done. Some ignore this but for the most part people are aware and stay away.

There is talk of regulating Facebook, et. al. Facebook is about to be fined. But at the same time there’s nothing for the users.

There’s almost no education about the consequences of posting your information online. If it’s been posted somewhere it’s safe to assume that it’s going to be around forever. It may not be online right now, but someone somewhere has saved it and might bring it back at any time. And yet even Beyonce tried to “remove a picture from the internet”.

Similarly, it’s safe to assume that an application is collecting data about everything done. Even entering text into a search box, but not clicking search is saved.

It also applies to less information, such as the one gathered by the quizzes. All it takes is that out of 20 silly questions a user answers, 2 aren’t really so silly but are personal.

People in tech might know this, but how’s anyone outside of the field supposed to find this out.

There’s no leaflet or poster explaining that besides the explicit information that the user willingingly provides, there’s a whole trove of information that’s implied. An oversimplified example is searching for “pharmacies nearby”. That implies that the user (or at least someone close to them) is ill. If they’re ill perhaps they need insurance. Maybe they’d like to have food delivered.

There’s very little understanding about how internet marketing works. Whatever a user is going through right now, chances are high someone else has already gone through a similar situation and the systems can therefore infer information about the user. And yet there are plenty of (fake and poorly set up) stories or experiments about Facebook/Google listening in on microphones. It’s much much easier to infer than to listen to a microphone 24/7. We think our condition is unique, and on the whole that may be true but it’s definitely made up of segments that are definitely not unique.

There is also very little information about how to reduce the intrusiveness of advertising or tracking. For example, how many people actually know that you can in fact turn off “interest-based targetting” for Google ads and you wont have them follow you around any more? All I get are some generic real estate ads and ads based on the content I’m reading. Definitely better than seeing the same ad for three months because you visited a site once. You can also opt-out in bulk from all adveritisng networks. Going even further, there are ad block extensions, or even ad block browsers, or even ad blocking hardware that stop ads and all tracking.

We’re also failing in more human ways.

There’s for example no education or norms or laws around not affecting other peoples privacy. Why do we think that it’s alright to tag/mention/etc someone in a post or photo unilaterally. I for one don’t want anyone to share my information, or information about me, and I’d never do that to someone else. But that’s normal and common.

There’s also no scepticism built into education system. You’re mostly expected to accept what you’re told. Since we now have the ability to spread news (true and otherwise) very rapidly the lack of ability to doubt and question becomes a big problem.

All the data gathered and the systems built can be used for advertising. That by itself isn’t evil. How’d we know about our favorite brands new shoes? How’d we know about a new coffee place nearby? It can even go so far as being altruistic and inform about social programs to those who need them. But it can also be used to influence elections. So abuses must be punished while at the same time we must take steps at the very least to be more informed.

My point is that the system itself is neither good nor bad but that by and large we put ourselves in this position. We volunteered this information about ourselves: be it about our favorite bands, the best pizza place or our political leanings. Facebook definitely did facilitate this and they aren’t saints by any stretch of the imagination, for this and other things, but we bear a lot more responsibility that anyone cares to admit.