Bashing Facebook

There’s something at odds about joining an Internet social network then complaining about lack of privacy. It’s sort of like walking into a west Texas barbecue shack and complaining about a lack of vegetarian options.

I doubt I’m the only one who thinks the sudden political reaction against Facebook is over the top. Face it, the reason the site exists is so people can tell hundreds, if not thousands of other people—”friends” under the loosest possible definition—where they are at any given moment, what they are doing, and whom they are with. Yet here we have the entire mechanism of government, in all seriousness, charging that this sort of set-up endangers privacy.

As Jeff Chester at the Center for Digital Democracy notes in this article (with apparent approval), investigations of Facebook have been launched on both sides of the Atlantic, in Congress and at the Federal Trade Commission, quite a bit of bureaucratic piling on for a company that’s just six years old.

Usually a level-headed technology analyst, danah boyd has suggested Facebook be regulated as a utility, akin to water and electricity. The crusading website, compares Facebook use to tobacco addiction and counsels quitters to form support groups (presumably not on Facebook). Topping it off, we have the spectacle of Sen. Charles “national-biometric-ID-card” Schumer railing against Facebook’s alleged assault on privacy.

Let’s see. We have an environmental disaster in the Gulf, bombs in Times Square, a pending financial meltdown in Europe, sabre-rattling on the Korean peninsula and the only thing that can occupy the minds of some in our government is that, someone, somewhere, is posting a comment on the Internet that may be used for targeted advertising? Can someone get a grip?

Let’s start with one basic fact: Facebook, like all Web-based social networking, is voluntary. If you don’t want to share your day-to-day goings-on with thousands of people who you have, by your own choice, allowed into your network, you don’t have to. Any information Facebook has about you comes from you. Tobacco analogies notwithstanding, QuitFacebookDay has it right. If you disapprove of what the company is doing with your information, don’t provide it with your information.

And don’t tell me that social networking is so important to modern life that there’s no real option to stay out. Seven years ago, Facebook did not exist. Social networking is fun and, yes, it can indeed be valuable in connecting distant family and old friends, but it is not essential like water or electricity. Take away water and electricity and there is true hardship. Take away Facebook and you just might miss out on someone’s favorite Heart lyric.

Facebook is not the only social networking service. There is MySpace, LinkedIn, Twitter, Plaxo and others, which offer different benefits for users. For instance, I use Facebook for social connections, but I use LinkedIn for professional contacts and networking.

The latest privacy controversy has centered on how Facebook is sharing its users’ information with its advertisers. Note that it’s Facebook’s relationship with advertisers that keeps the site free for the rest of us.

Here’s how Cecilia King in the Washington Post summarized the issue:

The concerns come after years of what some users now describe as oversharing on the Internet. From vacation photos to employment history on social networks and other Web sites, users had been sharing freely about intimate personal details with comfort in the masses. And now they are feeling burned and blindsided by changes that have exposed them more greatly then they initially envisioned, privacy advocates and security experts say.

Thing is, Facebook, as it has in the past, gets the message from its users and makes changes. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO and co-founder, made this clear in a Washington Post op-ed yesterday. The company admits it makes mistakes, but as with everything in high-tech regulation, they are rectified much more quickly than government can legislate.

This is better because all government regulation can do is get in the way new Web-based business models that are still developing. The models Facebook is exploring today will help determine how the Web will support new media, including news and information, going forward. As the Washington Post notes at the close of Zuckerberg’s piece, its chairman, Donald E. Graham, is a member of Facebook’s board. This is foresight on the Post’s part.

Social networking sites like Facebook and their users must be permitted the freedom to find the right balance between disclosure and privacy. This is something the government has no business determining. The term “self-regulation” invites derision these days, but despite its base of 400 million members, Facebook is not entrenched. As the premier Web-based social network, it supplanted MySpace, which was once considered just as invulnerable. Facebook just as quickly could be replaced by something else. Like any Web site, it lives and dies by number of visitors. It can’t afford to disenfranchise users.

At the same time, companies like Facebook represent the future of America’s information industry. If the current political leadership wants to be true to its vision of cultivating American leadership in the creation of jobs in higher-paying, greener industries such as IT, Web commerce and software development, it should be lauding Facebook, not seeking ways to punish it.