I read a somewhat hysterical post on Facebook yesterday claiming that today, the social network will “become owner of the publishing rights to ALL your private photos”, and warning me to make adjustments to my privacy settings to prevent Facebook from doing some potentially really nasty things.
I don’t know whether this is true. Personally, I’m not terribly worried that Mark Zuckerberg is going to hock my son’s high school prom pictures to the highest bidder. But I do think that Facebook, Google, Comcast, Time Warner, Disney and other gatekeepers of our connected world are acquiring an extraordinary amount of personal information about us that could be badly misused.
The media business (and yes, since Facebook and Google put content on screens, they are part of it) is entering a Brave New World where marketers are learning with extraordinary specificity our occupations, state of health, social status, hobbies, favorite movies and music, sexual proclivities and practically every other piece of meaningful information about us. We are told that this will improve the rate of return on advertising by orders of magnitude, and I believe it.
But the downsides are potentially enormous, and haven’t been thought through. If information is power, we are handing power on an unprecedented scale to the people who control what we see and hear on those broadband pipes. When Barack Obama joked at Facebook last week that “I’m the guy who got Mark Zuckerberg to put on a coat and tie”, he was a lot closer to the truth of his position in the scheme of things than he realized.
Think about what Facebook is doing — with our willing cooperation. It begins by compiling a highly detailed database on each of us based on our voluminous descriptions of ourselves and our likes and dislikes. It hones that information by asking us to pick the advertising we like, examines what kind of friends we have and then encourages us to “simplify” our lives further by using Facebook to connect to any other compatible social network.
Then Mark tells us that by being on his network, we are tacitly agreeing that our information will be publicly shared — and by extension, with advertisers — unless we tell him not to. By the same brilliant logic, if I show my friends photographs at a restaurant, the restaurant should have the right to show those photographs to anyone it likes.
It’s easy to demonize Facebook, but other media and telecom companies are close behind. Comcast’s reach is equally disquieting. We all willingly buy into the country’s largest cable operator’s “bundling” programs that give us “lower” rates on cable, TV and telephone service, but we are also giving Comcast a treasure trove of cross-referenced information about each of us — what shows we like, when we watch them, our Internet habits, who we call, and so on. This is before we factor in the NBC acquisition. We have the illusion of “choice” but really we increasingly become predictable data points in their bottom line.
I don’t think these companies and their executives are evil. I don’t think we can prevent this new world from emerging, nor do I think we’d be better off if we could. But if we buy into this ridiculous idea that we cede all right to our most personal data the moment we log into a network or turn on our TV, and if government abdicates its responsibility to protect the privacy of ordinary individuals by passing strong laws, then, yes, I think some really nasty things are going to happen.