Janus Face(book)

Paul Raven @ 27-01-2011

When corporations get big, stuff starts getting weird. Facebook is now sufficently large and internationally ubiquitous to be playing a part (albeit a passive/enabling part) in the recent spate of revolutions in the Middle East… but that involvement puts them on the same playing field as nation-states.

For example, Tunisian Facebook users reported some account hacks, which led Zuckerberg’s people to block the government-ordered man-in-the-middle attack that was behind said hacks [via TechDirt]. Now, on one level that’s just a company looking after the interests and privacy of its client-base… but on another level, that’s a non-nation-state entity blocking a nation-state’s attempts to control its citizens. Not entirely unprecedented, of course (East India Companies, anyone?), but the post-geopolitical implications are… well, let’s just say a lot of old certainties have pretty much disappeared, especially for less-developed nations with a recent history of despotism, but increasingly for the old “first world” titans, too.

My inner cynic suspects that there’s more than a hint of good PR strategy involved, though; Facebook has suffered from the inevitable bad press that comes with becoming big news real fast, but they’ve earned much of that opprobrium fair and square… and largely through a cavalier attitude to the privacy of their userbase, ironically enough. Their latest we-opted-you-in-while-you-weren’t-looking move is a real doozy; take it away, Ars Technica:

Better go check your Facebook profile pic to make sure it’s suitable for advertising—the company has begun using real users’ postings in ads being shown to their friends. The effort is eerily similar to parts of the now-defunct Facebook Beacon, but Facebook is now calling them “sponsored stories,” and users won’t be able to opt out of their posts being used to advertise to friends.

The new “feature” started showing up quietly on Wednesday morning without any kind of fanfare from Facebook, but users began to notice it right away. Things posted by their friends; check-ins at businesses and “Likes” clicked from other websites started being highlighted in the right-hand column with the other ads, under the headline of “Sponsored Story.”

It’s the lack of opt-out that will rile people as this story gains traction (which, given similar stories last year, I fully expect it will). Furthermore, the Facebook T&C clickwrap now says that any content you post there – pictures, status updates, blog posts, whatever – becomes Facebook’s IP to do with as it pleases. Makes sense from a business point of view, enables them to keep the service free to use, and probably won’t bother the vast majority of people… but I’ll be switching off all my feed imports from now on. For me at least, Facebook’s utility is outweighed by my feeling that if my content’s worth anything to anyone, I should be getting some cut of the deal… but in countries hungry for political change, whose citizens find themselves with an unprecedented tool-set for self-organisation, the balances tip in the other direction.

How Facebook decides to wield this power will be worth watching closely. We spoke before about wanting to become “citizens of the Internet”; if we think of “the Internet” as a sort of federation of city-states, Facebook starts looking remarkably like a panopticon remix of Brave New World.

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One Response to “Janus Face(book)”

  1. Your Obedient Serpent says: