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Zero to 1984 in just six years

There’s a passage in George Orwell’s 1949 classic Nineteen Eighty-Four which reads:

Then the face of Big Brother faded away again, and instead the three slogans of the Party stood out in bold capitals:




If you haven’t read the novel (and if you haven’t, you really should), these slogans are designed with a double meaning, with one meaning being something the citizens of Oceania could rally behind (fight a war for the promise of peace, being free isn’t really all that great and fascism is the way to go, and stay in line and do as you’re told and you’ll be good, respectively) and the other being something the Party, the all-powerful fascist government believes and practices (keep your nation at war and you’ll have domestic peace, give people the illusion of freedom and they’ll be your slaves, and keep people thinking they’re strong enough to remain ignorant, respectively).

You might wonder where I’m going with this, given that the image above this text is the Facebook logo. I was thinking about a way to address the latest Facebook controversy. Originally seeding from changes announced at Facebook’s F8, the controversy being that some of Facebook’s new features make it easier than ever to get your information everywhere on the web. This topic’s been covered by just about everyone else, it seems, including Mark Cuban. It’s even brought my colleague and company’s CTO out of blogosphere hiding.

Not wanting to steal anyone’s thunder, I thought long and hard (I originally wrote the joke but opted not to; if someone makes the joke in the comments I won’t hold it against them) about how to address a new angle of this controversy. Something reminded me of Nineteen Eighty-Four, my favorite novel, and I was reminded of those slogans. Now, it pains me to say that I didn’t remember all three off the top of my head (note to self: drop everything, reread Nineteen Eighty-Four this weekend), and interestingly, the one I didn’t remember was the one that was the most interesting to me: FREEDOM IS SLAVERY.

In the book, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY assumes that if someone believes they’re free in their current environment, they will do your bidding because there’s no reason for them to leave. Let’s look at Facebook by comparison: here’s a site that gives you your friends, your entertainment, your ability to communicate. A lot of times it seems like literally everyone is on Facebook: events are planned, photos are shared, conversations are conversed. If you’re on the outside of Facebook looking in (an experience I had from the fall of 2007 until the summer of 2008) it’s a struggle to coordinate with everyone else who isn’t on Facebook. Therefore, being on Facebook is the freedom to communicate and share with your friends.

But it comes at a price. When you sign up for Facebook, you agree to their terms of service and privacy policy, which state, more or less, that anything you post on Facebook becomes property of Facebook. In other words, your freedom isn’t really freedom; it’s slavery. Your freedom on Facebook is completely reliant on Facebook’s infrastructure and their desire to get you to stay on Facebook. That is, if Mark Zuckerberg got up tomorrow and said, “hey, you know what, I’m tired of Facebook, I’m shutting it down” tomorrow, you’d be out of luck. If he got up tomorrow and said, “MR. GORBACHEV, TEAR DOWN THIS WALL…of privacy” and made everything public, you’d be out of luck, unless you opted to remove your account.

Like the Party in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Facebook knows the power of a large group believing that they’re free, and that’s why they give you those granular privacy controls, all that help configuring them, and even the little previews that show you how everyone else sees your information. They know that the illusion of control is often powerful enough, if not more powerful, than control itself. (That’s not to say Facebook’s privacy controls don’t normally work; they do. Otherwise, the illusion of control would be over as soon as you hit the “Preview my profile as…” button.) And lastly, and most importantly, they know the strategic, monetary and intrinsic value of having all that information about you, your friends, and everyone else.

So when Facebook announced these new “Instant Personalization” features at F8, they may not have known that the backlash would be this severe. But they not only knew the value of getting a bunch of money from Microsoft, Yelp and Pandora; they knew how much those companies valued your information so they could engage you more effectively, and they knew that these sites would be gathering still more information. It’s not in Facebook’s best interest to guard your information zealously; rather, the best thing they should do is guard it enough so that you don’t know it’s being traded.

What does all that mean? It means that by signing up for a Facebook account, you are at their mercy for if and when they decide to alter their strategy. If that’s the sort of thing that bothers you immediately, delete your account permanently. However, if you trust Facebook even a smidgen that they’re not gearing up for a war with Eastasia, trust that while your information isn’t exactly static, thus far Facebook isn’t selling your e-mail address and phone number to spammers.

But as Jim said, the most surefire way to ensure something doesn’t end up on Facebook or with an affiliate is: never post it in the first place. Always always always think before you post, and if you choose to post controversial profanity-laden rants, risque pictures of the party last night, or complaints about your boss, consider putting them on a medium you control. (And no, that medium isn’t Twitter.)

Facebook privacy rights: a primer

Things have been pretty crazy in the blogosphere lately. With the Indians selling off All-star after All-star, I haven’t had a chance to discuss this story yet. And it’s not because it’s not important; it is. For those who didn’t read the original story, a high school in Mississippi is being sued for coercing a teenager into surrendering her Facebook credentials to have a shot at making the cheerleading team. As Ars Technica notes, the girl never used Facebook during school hours, but the cheerleading coach threatened punishment if the order to surrender her Facebook credentials was not obeyed.

This isn’t the first time it’s happened; indeed, a much more well-known case happened in Bozeman, Montana, when all government employee candidates were required to surrender all of their login information for every social network. After a public outcry and Web protest, the restriction was lifted. This case, however, already occurred and involves a teenager who may have not known what her own rights were.

It’s well-known that companies use Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and even Google to do “background checks” on employees. This is not only understandable, but it’s an excellent use of today’s technology to weed out candidates before they even walk in the door without spending more than 15 minutes online. The good news is that Facebook lets you limit parts of your profile to different audiences, LinkedIn isn’t really social networking as much as it is business networking, and…seriously, who uses MySpace anymore? (I think if you have a MySpace profile that an employer confirms is you, that’s a point against you. Just my advice.) Google’s a little bit trickier, but most of us have common enough names that anything too embarassing is lost in the search results, and ultimately, Google’s search engine keeps us all honest and makes sure we don’t publish anything we might regret later online. The point is, what companies do for the most part is simply do some fact-finding about who they might hire; it’s no more an invasion of privacy than calling your references on your resume.

The difference in this school case, however, is that with the girl’s password, there are no privacy restrictions. Not only could the school administrators view what was public for her friends and private for everyone else, they could view things that were previously private to everyone except her. This means Facebook messages, applications used, every friend the girl has ever had and every photo the girl has ever been tagged in. According to Ars, the account was used to read a private discussion regarding the cheerleading squad and information found there was used to “publicly [reprimand], [punish], and [humiliate]” the girl.

Throwing aside the ridiculous response of airing out laundry publicly instead of behind closed doors, this was a completely illegal search. If you remember from your days in high school, school administrators had the right to search your property at any time, provided it was on school grounds. That means they could search your locker, they could search your backpack and they could search your laptop if you brought it with you to school. Because the student never opened Facebook on school computers, this was completely outside the scope of the school and thus, the cheerleading coach was overstepping his bounds.

Ars Technica’s recommendation (in the last paragraph) warns readers not to store information they wish to remain private on social networking sites. While there’s something to be said for this (software security glitches or bugs might turn private information into public information unexpectedly), there’s nothing wrong with holding conversations on social networking sites about sensitive topics – that’s not only a reasonable use, that’s what private messaging is for. Facebook has said that messages will remain private and will only be able to be seen by their recipients.

Ultimately, if you find yourself in a situation where you’re supposed to surrender your social networking account credentials, fight it. Ask for a warrant. There is no reason anyone except you should ever have access to your account (including friends, partners, dogs, whatever). If they need a certain bit of information, its up to your discretion whether or not you share that with them, and if you choose not to, they’ll have to live with it. (Keep in mind, information you send to a private recipient can easily be forwarded to someone you don’t want to read. Know who to trust.) Also, know that if Facebook is ordered by the court, they can surrender your information without you needing to give up your password. If the search is legal, whoever wants the information can get a court order.

Now I’m not a legal expert by any means, so while I hope you heed my advice, if you find yourself in a legal matter, seek professional counsel. Just don’t let yourself be bullied by people who try to take advantage of social networking’s accessibility.