Facebook: The Privatization of our Privates and Life in the Company Town
Do people have any grounds to complain about the latest changes to the rules of publicness of various elements of a Facebook profile? Or is the only legitimate response “love-it or leave-it?”
Lately, Facebook has been pushing a dual strategy of “public-or-nothing” with some profile elements and “public-by-default and good-luck-figuring-out-the-settings” with others. Some influential industry analysts and Facebook’s own publicity officer have taken a “nobody is twisting your arm to use Facebook; leave if you don’t like it” approach.
The correct analogy to the current situation would be if tenants had no rights to privacy in their homes because they happen to be renting the walls and doors. This week, you are allowed to close the door but, oops, we changed the terms-of-service.
At face value, it seems like a fair point. Nobody is forcing anyone to use Facebook or any other online social network service. At most, it seems, we have a right to complain about obscure terms-of-service and demand for better language and better heads-up of changes. At most, the strongest demand that is seen as legitimate seems to be that we should be allowed to opt-in.
I argue that this is too limited a view. We have to stop looking at the “Facebook – lone individual” transaction and look at what’s going on at the systemic level. This isn’t just about Facebook, either. This is about the fact that increasing portions of our sociality are now conducted in privately-owned spaces. The implications of this are still playing out.
The latest developments appear to be the next stage to the historical trend of privatization of our publics. Examples of those include the dominance of corporate-owned media over the civic public sphere, outsourcing of many government functions to less-accountable contractors including some aspects of war, increasing reduction of our public spaces to malls and privately-owned town-squares, such as downtown Silver Spring, MD where first-amendment does not apply, etc.
What is currently happening is the privatization of our privates, not just our publics. And this is not a mere question of legality but a lack of legal protections being carried over to a new medium. In some sense, this parallels the lack of carrying of wiretap protections on the phone to the Internet – the social relations did not change but the medium changed allowing for a gap in legal protections.
The correct analogy to the current situation would be if tenants had no rights to privacy in their homes because they happen to be renting the walls and doors. This week, you are allowed to close the door but, oops, we changed the terms-of-service. No more closed doors! You had locks last week but we don’t allow them as of this week. Sorry for the misunderstanding.
Further, it is as if all the housing in the major city with the jobs was owned by a single company so the choice was either leave that town or surrender control over your private life. “Don’t like it, leave!” the bosses of the company town (and other people in positions of privilege would say.) And shake their heads over the inability of people to read the terms-of-service on their ever-changing lease. The value of Facebook is that people have created their networks through its infrastructure, and they have done so with the understanding that the network would be under their control because that is what Facebook said initially. Instead, all of a sudden, they’ve found themselves in a company town. This cannot be a viable strategy, ethically or commercially.
There is a reason the law recognizes the right of the tenant to privacy within her home regardless of ownership. People are not businesses, sociality is not a mere transaction, and our social interactions are more than opportunities for monetization.
There are four key points to the infrastructure of sociality:
1- Being social is not optional. It is a core human need and a requirement for being a part of society. It is legitimate to argue that the infrastructure of sociality cannot be just about priorities of businesses and intricacies of ownership.
2- Every society has “commons” – shared infrastructure that makes it possible for the society as a whole to function. Internet is now a part of that commons in general and many social applications such as Facebook are part of the “social commons.” That is why Facebook, the corporation, is so valuable and people who own it are very rich. It would not be wise of them to ignore that fact.
3- These commons function to the degree that they do because they are shared. You cannot merely withdraw because the value is in the network. Thus, claims of ownership of the network cause tension because of the dual-nature of this network: it is created by the people and consists of the people while the infrastructure is privately controlled. Currently, the infrastructure-owners want to claim primary control. That is the tension we are witnessing.
4- The “transaction between parties” approach is not illuminating because first, the transaction is not between equals. Power has to enter into this analysis. Further, people do have a claim to the network because they created it. Facebook wants all the control because it owns the infrastructure.
Historically, the private sphere tended to be intimate/hidden/personal while the public sphere was civic/visible/impersonal. The internet has shuffled those distinctions quite radically in ways that are too long to explore in one already-too-long blog post. Our cultural toolkit, the ways we know how to act, regulate, maintain and explore those boundaries, has not caught up to the new reality. Sociologists talk about primary (intimate, core, face-to-face) and secondary (larger groups) social relations. While the second may involve a larger audience, they are both still delimited. Facebook is forcing elements of that sociality to be effectively globally-public.
As a society, we understand that ownership of infrastructure does not constitute a blank check to publicize and monetize private interactions. We should carry over that principle to new technologies because what matters is our social contract, not whether the interaction now takes place over silicon and wire instead of through sound and air.
Should shopping malls have the right to surreptitiously record every word you say to the person you are with and sell it to whomever? Do they have a right to put cameras in the lavatories? Do tenants have a right to privacy? If I am on a bus, or a train, or business, or anywhere that I do not own, have I forfeited all rights and expectations of control over my words and interactions? Indeed, law recognizes that the fundamental dignity of the person means that we do not just surrender those rights in privately-owned spaces. Facebook should recognize and honor those principles.
Can Facebook still make money? Sure. I believe there are many ways that Facebook could monetize the work that its 400 millions have put into its system without trampling over the basic social contract.
Ultimately, I think they are the biggest threat to themselves because affordances of the Internet do mean that people could self-organize and take the network elsewhere with a lot more ease than Facebook seems to think. I suspect Facebook is betting that people have too much invested in their profiles. It may well be true at the moment but Facebook would be wise, commercially and ethically, to keep in mind the ease with which cascades can self-organize in networks.