Thursday, 29 November 2012

Keep it private on Facebook

EARLIER this week, many Facebook users’ timelines were flooded with the same status update from their various friends staking copyright claims to their updates and uploads from Facebook.

Part of the status update reads: “In response to the new Facebook guidelines I hereby declare that my copyright is attached to all of my personal details, illustrations, comics, paintings, professional photos and videos, etc (as a result of the Bernes Convention).”

Never mind that the person who originally wrote the update from which people have been cutting and pasting onto their own statuses got the name of the Convention wrong (it’s Berne, by the way), but posting what is known as a “legal talisman” such as the above doesn’t really do anything.

Such updates are not new. For many years, and on a variety of websites, similar postings have appeared. In most cases, these words have little legal weight.

Take the aforementioned status update for example. First of all, a posting like that cannot override the terms and conditions that a user has accepted when signing up for the account. Even if one was to argue that Facebook has made many changes to its policies along the way, it would be naïve to believe that the company – now a publicly listed one – would not have covered their backs in the form of a clause stating that they are allowed to change said terms and conditions. What’s more, Facebook has many a time informed its users of impending changes to its privacy policies.

In that case, the fault, it would appear, lies with the users – us – as we probably: 1) did not read the whole terms and conditions before clicking “accept”; and 2) rarely pay attention to any notifications of changes.

Users’ behaviour

The issue here is not so much about the policies of a listed company trying to find ways to best maximise its profits while maintaining its large user base. In fact, I would argue that the biggest issue really is in the behaviour of the users themselves.

Researchers have, for years, since the start of the social media phenomenon in the early naughties, warned of what a professor in communications, Susan B. Barnes, calls “the privacy paradox”. An example she cites in her paper, looking at the privacy paradox on social network sites among American users, is that of teenagers who “freely give up personal information to join social networks” but at the same time “are surprised when their parents read their journals”.

The problem isn’t an American one. With the pervasive nature of the Internet, the issue of private versus public is universal. In the first article I wrote for this column discussing two bloggers who shared their sex lives online, I discussed privacy in the context of private actions being shared on public platforms.

The issue of privacy on social networks is different in that the nature of these sites were never private in the first place. The nature of symmetrical social networks (that is, sites that require two people to mutually connect before most information is shared) presents only a veil of privacy because it leads you to believe that whatever you say or post is shared only within the walls of your network.

However, the information doesn’t always stay within the group. The same can be said with social networks. In fact, it is easier for this information to be shared – most of these sites feature sharing buttons or some form of forwarding mechanism which not only makes such sharing more convenient but in fact, encourages some actions.

The only control of privacy a user has is at the initial stage when he/she asks him/herself: “Do I share this information or not, and if so, to whom?” Granted, Facebook currently allows users to set “Only Me” in the viewing settings of any information put on a user’s profile.

This begs the question as to why you would upload anything on a social network site that you don’t want sharing in the first place. Wouldn’t that picture or video be more secure in the privacy of your desktop and wouldn’t your private thoughts be best left in a diary (or just in your head)?

The whole point of social networking is sharing with one’s web of “friends” and as such, to complain that privacy has been breached is, frankly, quite rich. I’m not suggesting that one should just succumb to the whims of the power brokers of the Internet. Far from it. In fact, negative sentiments towards changes to privacy settings in the past has led to Facebook revisiting their changes.

The point here is that we also need to look at ourselves and our behaviours when it comes to dealing with privacy, and ask if these changes are consistent with our actions, and if that is indeed the cause of the paradox that Barnes speaks of.

As with the legal talisman currently making its rounds on Facebook, some might suggest that it is not actually a privacy issue but instead one of intellectual property (hence the use of the term “copyright”).

The underlying issue has to do with Facebook’s using and sharing of users’ information, and that talisman was worded that way with hopes that by invoking copyright laws, the social network company would no longer be able to act that way.

Unfortunately, they can and will continue to do so as Facebook does not claim to own any of the material users post or update onto their profiles. They do, however, retain the “non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide licence to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook” subject to one’s privacy settings.

Three options

At this stage, users have three choices. They can complain and hope that Facebook takes action. Seeing as how the paradox exist, this does appear to be a losing battle. The other two options are much simpler: one is to make sure that none of their postings are shared publicly (through privacy settings) or secondly, delete one’s Facebook account.

The last option is pretty harsh, and not at all consistent with mainstream behaviour within digital culture but is probably currently one’s best bet.

In the words of writer Huzir Sulaiman, who posted this message “publicly” on his Facebook profile: “If you want something to be private, keep it in your own head.”


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