[LINK] Facebook's power should worry us all
david.boxall at hunterlink.net.au
Mon Oct 10 10:19:41 AEDT 2011
More and more, I find reasons to rejoice that I resisted the Facebook
October 10, 2011
If Facebook was a government agency, its power would be as undisputed as
it would be frightening.
For a single organisation to know as much as it does about the habits,
interests and behaviour of 10 million Australians is unsettling.
If a government department had so much up-to-the-minute information
about who we know, where we have been and what we are doing at its
fingertips then one can only imagine the outcry.
And yet here we have a privately-owned company accountable to no one
operating with apparent immunity from the law. Aside from the grumbling
that invariably attends any changes Facebook makes to its site, no one
has yet taken to the streets.
Facebook's power continues to grow (800 million users and counting) and,
on the face of it, the only real alternative left open to us is to
either beat a retreat into a self-imposed disconnected world or total
For waiting for the government or the regulators to step in may be a
futile exercise. The hyperbolic pace at which technology moves is no
match for the law.
The amount of times that the Australian Law Reform Commission mentioned
Facebook in its weighty report into privacy, delivered in August 2008,
can be counted on both hands. That's not the fault of the commissioners
so much as when they embarked on their task of reviewing privacy
legislation in 2006 Facebook was a relatively nascent service. Most of
the focus was on the comparatively simple — and now largely redundant —
social networking site MySpace.
Three years on and not one of the Commission's 295 recommendations
around privacy has actually made it into law, although the government
has "responded" to 197 of them.
The best hope for any privacy protection resides in an issues paper —
released a fortnight ago — that explores whether individuals should be
able to sue for a breach of their privacy. Coming as it does following
The News of the World hacking scandal, much of its focus is expected to
be on serious invasions of privacy by the media; the handling of data by
sophisticated technology companies like Facebook, Google and LinkedIn is
at risk of coming a distant second.
If it becomes law then it could provide some relief to those individuals
who quite rightly wonder and fear what Facebook and its ilk are doing
with the reams of personal data they hoover up in our wake as we go
about our business on the internet.
At present the federal privacy watchdog has limited powers and resources
to pursue companies like Facebook through the courts, an issue that the
commission also raised in its reports and which the government has so
far done nothing about, along with laws to force companies to disclose
breaches of data.
Perhaps the federal privacy commissioner, Timothy Pilgrim, was all too
aware of these limitations when he said he was not going to investigate
Facebook for tracking people's movements across the internet even after
they had logged out of their Facebook account.
His acceptance of Facebook's word that it had "rectified the issue" was
disappointing and given it fell to an Australian security consultant and
blogger Nik Cubrilovic to unearth Facebook's secret tracking, Pilgrim's
assurances that he would "continue to monitor future developments" does
precious little to assuage my fears.
Elsewhere in the world privacy commissioners are wise to the ways of
Facebook and Google. Last year privacy commissioners from 10 countries —
Australia was not among them — wrote to Google in the wake of its now
defunct social networking site, Google Buzz, a feature of which
automatically suggested friends to new users based on their most
frequent email and chat contacts in Gmail.
This suck it and see approach prompted the outgoing US commissioner,
Pamela Jones Harbour, to declare that it was no longer good enough for
the companies to "throw it against the wall, see if it sticks — and if
not, we can always pull it back".
Even today Facebook continues to deny there is a problem with its
tracking and is pushing ahead with "frictionless sharing", whereby a
user's activities are published on their profiles without any prompting
Both Facebook and Google prefer to talk about empowering you the user to
exert control over your privacy settings, rather than what they are
doing with your information and with whom they are sharing it. It's all
part of their quest to gain as much information about you as possible so
that it can be traded for the purpose of helping more targeted advertising.
A small but growing number of people are withdrawing from Facebook and
entering into a self-imposed exile but one wonders what it will take
before the penny drops for the rest of us that we have willingly
surrendered our identity to corporations that have a cavalier disregard
It's the price we pay for such free services, the Faustian pact into
which we have entered in order to survive in an age of constant
connectivity where the tentacles of Facebook — with its ambition to be
the "identity platform" — are extending to every corner of the internet.
Which raises the question - if Facebook and Google place a value on your
identity then why shouldn't you?
Julian Lee is deputy editor of the National Times.
David Boxall | I have seen the past
| And it worked.
http://david.boxall.id.au | --TJ Hooker
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