[LINK] Facebook's power should worry us all

David Boxall 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 

Julian Lee
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 
by them.

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 
to privacy.

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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