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.


Tunisia, Egypt… where next?

Paul Raven @ 26-01-2011

All that talk over the last few years about the ubiquity of instability? Starting to look a lot less like cynical doomsaying, ain’t it?

Via BigThink, Le Monde Diplomatique gets all brow-furrowed and chin-strokey:

Put simply, global consumption patterns are now beginning to challenge the planet’s natural resource limits. Populations are still on the rise, and from Brazil to India, Turkey to China, new powers are rising as well. With them goes an urge for a more American-style life. Not surprisingly, the demand for basic commodities is significantly on the rise, even as supplies in many instances are shrinking. At the same time, climate change, itself a product of unbridled energy use, is adding to the pressure on supplies, and speculators are betting on a situation trending progressively worse. Add these together and the road ahead appears increasingly rocky.

Chickens coming home to roost… as the West’s privileged lifestyle begins its decline, the rest of the world finally starts demanding its cut of the cake. And this isn’t a religious backlash, or even a classic left-right political clash. It’s plebs versus politicos, the governed lashing back at the governers, and the intertubes are certainly playing their part… but they’re just the conduit, not the cause:

That protests so large in scale could be organized largely over the internet and independent of Egypt’s traditional opposition, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, should give Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak plenty of cause for concern, says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center. It shows the extent to which regular Egyptians are fed up with authoritarian rule, and how quickly that frustration can spread—lending it shades of the uprising in Tunisia. “It’s not an Islamist-organized protest. This really is unprecedented. It’s just everyday Egyptians getting angry,” he says. “If I was a regime official, I’d be pacing in my room right now.”

John Robb is unsurprisingly enjoying a “told you so” moment, and suggesting routes forward for this new insurgency:

For an open source revolt to be successfully formed, it needs a plausible promise.  A meta issue around which all of the different factions etc. can form (remember, most of the groups and individuals involved in an open source revolt can’t agree on anything but some basic concepts).  A generic “day of revolt” doesn’t accomplish that. What could?

Using the multi-million scale No Mas FARC protests as an example and the critical ingredient in the Tunisian protests (extreme corruption that generated an endless wellspring of anger/frustration), a potential “plausible promise” for an Egyptian open source revolt is:

No More Corruption

Not only is a movement opposing corruption something the government will find hard to oppose, it is something every Egyptian deals with on a daily basis.  It also has the added benefit of directly harming the entrenched ruling elite, who are likely to become poster children of the very thing the movement is against.

Hey, kids – can you think of any nation closer to home where citizens have to deal with corruption on a daily basis? Places where budgets are being slashed, where the quality of life is tanking, but where the folk at the top of the pyramid are doing better than ever?

Yeah, me too. Interesting times ahead.