By now we are all used to the outcry that accompanies every change to Facebook. There are a few moments of complete outrage with threats to leave Facebook and hang out with that one guy on MySpace or informative status updates telling us to how to navigate the byzantine settings in order to opt out of things like Facebook telling people where we just took a dump without our approval. In the end, though, everything stays the same (for a graphical description of this phenomenon, see the fantastic Oatmeal state of the Internet comic). We don’t quit Facebook because, well, everyone else is on it.
And, sure, it’s part of the deal to have our privacy invaded by Facebook or Google: we get free stuff in exchange for our data being mined, that’s why it’s free. And also, there is the sense that a lot of the information we share or data we give advertisers are things that we are willing to share. The reason social networking has become such an integral part of our lives is that ostensibly we want to broadcast certain things. Be they the bands we like, the books we read, the things we find interesting (and, by extension, make us interesting), we want to cultivate the perception of us that the world should have. No more bad photographs, no more embarrassing records amongst our collection. Our social avatars are our ideal selves.
The latest Facebook API, however, are a step into a whole new realm where you don’t even choose to share information: it’s done for you (unless you “opt out”, which is something you’ll only realise you have to do once damage is already done). So, theoretically, you could be in a situation where your younger siblings see that you are streaming Cum-Gargling Slutfest 38, your revolutionary leftist boss sees that you are frequenting right-wing blogs or the girl you are trying to impress with a carefully curated Facebook profile sees that you listen to Britney Spears. A lot.
The music situation mentioned was the first immediate consequence of “new” Facebook: suddenly you couldn’t even sign up for Spotify without having a Facebook account and our feeds were swamped with whatever people were listening to. And not even logging out of Facebook helps, as this post by Nik Cubrilovic explains. But it is not hard to imagine the other situations either: adult-themed websites (especially free ones) have always been the least “safe” to visit and the least scrupulous and already there are accounts of the upcoming Guardian and Washington Post apps immediately posting to our Facebook account the articles we are reading unless we opt out of this. Actively “Opting Out” is a big difference from actively clicking on Like (even though a mis-clicked Like-button already had its risks when someone I am acquainted with indadvertedly posted an affection to homosexual pornography). It is ushering in an era of participatory surveillance as defined by Albert Albrechtslund in his essay “Online Social Networking as Participatory Surveillance” (thanks Amanda for the reference). More than ever, it is harder to lie about where you are, or what you are doing because of social networks. Making out with a random person at a club can already come back and haunt the married via tags and places and all sorts of things, but with no knowledge of even opting in, we are quickly reproducing a Bentham-stylee Panopticon.
There are solutions, of course. I am currently using a variety of Firefox plugins in order to run Facebook in a separate “identity profile” that does not have any access to the cookies generated by the rest of my browser windows which I’m assuming work the way I want them to. Every time there is a new Facebook privacy issue, users change their behaviours slightly. They might not close their accounts, but they’ll be less inclined to upload those photos of a drunken night out or to play Facebook games that spam all your friends. Again, however, this latest change is different from those that came before it. Because now I no longer trust my iPad.
I have often extolled the virtues of Apple’s “closed garden” philosophy. When things work the way they are supposed to without any glitches and without having to worry about things like malware or task managers, I am willing to give up some functionality, like being able to mod the shit out of my device and have the menu bar in #FF0099 and the app icons being exactly 43 x 43 pixels. Even though the iOS Safari browser, leaps and bounds ahead of any of its mobile competitors in terms of stability and speed, has not allowed for the kind of tinkering its desktop version allows, I’ve not minded it so far because it’s mostly annoying ads I object to and without flash or pop-ups, they don’t bother me as much. But now, I will be thinking of the websites I visit, the apps I use and last night, for the first time ever, since I don’t know how iOS handles cookies and what apps are logged into Facebook and what websites know who I am, I thought to myself maybe I should just use my PC to browse. This is a terrible thing for what Apple branded the “post-PC era” as it keeps desktops and their modifiable software and browsers necessary, even for laymen who have flocked to the iPad in droves and dream of never having to bother with a PC again and its antiquated legacies ever again.
Apple has always claimed that their reason for the closed garden is to protect the user (of course I’m not fanboyish enough to believe it is the only reason or even the main one, but I do think that the Apple design and software teams genuinely believe that in order to have something “Just Work” there needs to be a limit to the things you can fuck up), and compared to Android, it does seem like a much safer environment. But malware and viruses aren’t the only thing that we need to be protected from. As Nik Cubrilovic mentioned in the piece linked to above and singled out by John Gruber:
Facebook are front-and-center in the new privacy debate just as Microsoft were with security issues a decade ago.
and I believe this to be partially accurate. Part of the deal with Apple is that we pay to use their products (MobileMe instead of Gmail, Pages instead of Google Docs etc etc) and so are entitled to a better service (for this reason Apple can’t get away with having products in perpetual beta-limbo like Google does). Better service has so far meant protection from malware, not having to bother with antivirus software etc. Now it must also include our privacy. This is a potentially a huge opportunity for Apple if it can successfully convince users that their iOS products don’t “leak” our browser history to Facebook and everyone we know, but as it stands now until further notice I want to control my own browser again.