Where is Facebook’s privacy taking its users?

With growing concerns over Facebook's casual attitude to the privacy of its users, can a new grassroots, privacy-aware social network challenge its dominance?
Jim Killock
29 May 2010

Facebook seems extraordinarily prone to annoying its users, people like you and me. Multiple interface changes, behavioural advertising, problems with data and third party apps; terms and conditions claiming extraordinary rights over your contributions, and changes to privacy settings that seemed extreme to many campaigners. (See this for their views on the latest round of changes)

But if you want a sense of how deep people feel about the problems of privacy on Facebook and elsewhere, look no further than Project Diaspora.

Here are three undergraduate programmers, who listened to software geeks’ favourite lawyer Eben Moglen, and decided they would lay the foundations of a privacy-friendly social network. Their goal was to create a system where you would control all of your data, from your own decentralised “node”. That’s a little like how P2P works today.

They asked for donations of $10,000 to do their work over the summer after they graduate. So far, they have received over $190,000.

There has been quite a lot of criticism of this new project, run by fresh-faced graduates nobody has ever heard of, which plans to release their code to the public once their work is done. It certainly seems a little crazy – perhaps as crazy as Facebook was when it was started by students barely out of college.

But the scale of the donations shows that people really want social networking that respects their privacy, and they don’t feel that Facebook is giving them what they want.

The current changes, to my mind, are the symptom of the lack of control we have with environments like this. We sign up, we contribute our photos, we identify our friends, we build the value of the community and website.

But we no longer own the rights to the photos we add, we can’t even define the terms on which we share them, and when Facebook or whoever decide to change how they operate, there is little we can do except complain.

Without getting into the new round of changes, I will say I don’t like them. I don’t wish to have to choose between removing personal information, and sharing it with large networks. Sorry, but that should be my choice.

And here’s the dilemma. Facebook may wish to leverage new value by creating huge networks useful presumably to advertisers, but in doing so, they are undermining our trust. And without our trust, they don’t really have a future, surely?

You might of course, instantly object that the appeal of Facebook is that your friends can use it, and already do, and you don’t want to be left out. Of course that is true, but the rise of Twitter seems to show that if you do something better, then social networks can still grow rather quickly.

Personally, I’m all for a bit of competition with Facebook. The rise of a grassroots, privacy-aware social network might at the very least make them think about what they are doing: and give some of us a better way of networking, where we are back in control. Whether Diaspora will be that tool is anyone’s guess, but they’ve already proved that the demand is real.

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