On Facebook’s New Features, Privacy And The Near Future Of The Web

Quite a bit has been made recently of the changes to Facebook’s default settings, an extensive expansion of how Facebook shares data with other Web sites, and how all that works within the traditional expectation — if not the fundamental understanding — most people have about privacy.

Facebook’s recent change to, by default, share public user information with partner Web sites — namely, Microsoft’s Docs.com, Internet radio provider Pandora and city-based business review site Yelp — is “building a largely closed, alternative version of the Internet,” or, in plainer language, “a power grab.”

This argument is further (and ironically) strengthened by Facebook’s announcement at the recent f8 developer conference that it is switching from its proprietary Facebook Connect login system to OAuth, the soon-to-be-a-standard, open Web site authentication protocol. In so doing, the fabled idea of the “single sign-on” for all Web sites becomes less pipe dream and more within reach — with Facebook the linchpin, and by inference, the one link that can’t be removed from the chain.

In other words, Facebook is a 1998-vintage AOL that doesn’t suck.

That’s not a bad thing. Actually, it’s a great thing.

The Price Of A Web That Works: Your “Privacy”

Yahoo! has been trying to be AOL that doesn’t suck ever since 1994, but it sucks almost as much as AOL and is run by business people with about as much foresight as old-media behemoth Time Warner. (I clearly remember, back in the late 1990s, all the buzz about “portals” and the need to be the conduit through which everyone searched the Web. How is that fundamentally different from what Facebook is actually achieving now?)

But because it is so grossly incompetent, nobody goes around accusing Yahoo! of being the second Evil Empire. For what that’s worth, the first IT Evil Empire, Microsoft, is so inept at Web strategies, no one even considers raising its name, nonetheless a fist toward it. This, even as its one potentially useful Internet contribution — docs.com — is inextricably linked to Facebook.

Had MySpace, Bebo (a.k.a. AOL 11) or even Ning actually understood how social media work, they could be the target of such Web hysterics. Even the most prevalent previous target of Web-related hysterics — Google — doesn’t now rate the kind of ire Facebook has been getting this week.

That the promise of Web 2.0 has been so successfully seized by Facebook is proof of one of the basic, overarching laws of economic progress: Technologies that make it easy for many people to create lots of products cheaply are always handsomely rewarded.

Facebook makes social media simple. It makes the sharing and consuming media very efficient by:

  • consolidating a lot of communication channels (read: video, text, chat, photos, games, etc.) into one place;
  • aggregating significant amounts of data into easy-to-consume streams; and
  • ultimately allowing content consumers to dictate their experience, rather than content creators.

The price for this is, I agree, the death of the kind of privacy — or, more accurately, anonymity — most people expected in their offline lives and assume they can have online. But I have startling news: Online privacy has never existed.

There is only what you don’t say, what others don’t say about you, what people interested in you aren’t willing to seek out, and whatever real-world reputation you actually create.

About the best you can do to preserve your online privacy is never go online; because once you do, everything you have done and will do — from using a search engine, to chatting with complete strangers, to everything you’ve ever put on your Web site, to even your allegedly secure credit card transactions — can be known. And even refusing to go online isn’t enough; forgetting all the people finder Web sites, one of your online friends need simply mention you or post your photo on Facebook or Twitter, and you now have an online trail.

History Repeats

That Facebook does this kind of information aggregation better than anyone else — and seeks to replace the series of tubes with one giant pipe — is, therefore, really more of a question of a second kind of net neutrality, rather than the erosion of a right that neither does exist, nor, by definition of how the medium works, can exist.

It’s not whether it is fair for a few giant bandwidth providers to restrict the type of information that flows from one place to another. It’s whether it’s right for a few giant Internet presences — Facebook, Google, Amazon (by virtue of its share of the cloud computing platforms) and Apple (by virtue of its growing hold on hand-held computing devices) — to control the data we exchange.

What concerns most is the idea of Big Brother — that one, overriding entity has control of all the information about us, and can easily interrelate and aggregate that information to anyone, probably for a price.

This is an entirely valid fear. I share the same distrust of all large organizations, be they governments, companies, armies or mobs. And there is no example from history, of which I am aware, of any large organization that built or retained power without resorting to compulsion of its subjects and violent opposition of its critics nee enemies.

I admit that’s hyperbole. It is a more than just a stretch to assume that this blog will cease to exist, or be hard to find, due to Facebook’s successes.

But that is not to suggest that coming here is something the average user would care to do, if Facebook directly presented users who might like this blog with dozens of alternative blogs, perhaps more germane to their interests, right in their news streams, based on the types of Web queries they are using and sites they are visiting.

In other words, as Facebook succeeds, the onus on others to leverage its success increases. And this, in turn, becomes the snowball effect.

In 1994, it was not unusual to not have an e-mail account, but unimaginable to not have a land line. Today, not having an e-mail address is almost unfathomable; but wireless-only households are increasing rapidly.

One can expect this to happen as Facebook continues to push being the preferred platform for data exchange on the Web.

Real ‘Net Neutrality’ And Privacy: Obfuscation, Decentralization

When considered in the abstract, this chain of events was to be expected. As the neolithic and agricultural revolutions took place, we went from having a rudimentary understanding of property to an exceedingly complex one; as the industrial revolution took root, we went from a strict, property-and-possession based understanding of money and wealth to one more sophisticated, abstract and — as recent events have borne out — difficult to measure or appreciate.

We are still in the infancy of the information revolution, and one of its primary victims will be our traditional sense of privacy.

When we changed from hunter-gatherers into farmers, we had to accept that the freedom we enjoyed to use whatever land we were on needed to bend to the right of property. When we changed from farmers to factory workers, we had to change our concepts of personal liberty, both in the sense of our right to work for our own benefit and to not enslave others.

One of the first tests we are facing in the information age is our ability to maintain secrets.

In past economic revolutions, there were a number of convulsions, many of them quite destructive. We saw monopolies, government excesses, popular revolts, bloodshed on grand scales and plenty of trial and error before we reached hegemony. There’s no reason to expect that isn’t going to be the case with the information economy.

In the case of previous economic revolutions, hegemony was built on two footings: obfuscation and decentralization.

That is, monopolies could not survive, based largely due to public revolt; but a sort of plutocracy took over, one based primarily in the fact that it is just complex enough to prevent any one player from controlling it in large part, in turn leaving enough options so that even if popular opinion turns against any one part, attacking (or even destroying) it makes no difference.

For example, great hue and cry is raised every year about “special interests” controlling Washington, DC. Enough laws and restrictions have been passed since the founding of the United States, to control the voices of special interests, that if the problem could be solved, it should have been solved by now.

But there are enough “special interests” — and so many ways to peddle influence, since the U.S. government has its hands in every pocket — that not only does no one effort to restrict influence work as advertised; the entire sum of all efforts have been for naught.

That’s obfuscation and decentralization in practice.

We’re Still At The Drawing Board

I think what we see, today, is Facebook as a step toward whatever the Web is going to be. Even as Google captured the majority of search, it has not succeeded where Facebook has: in aggregating communication into a convenient channel. That elusive goal AOL had nearly achieved at the birth of the Web has come full circle, just as the server-client model went to client-server and now, back again, via the graces of cloud computing.

Will Facebook be akin to feudalism, or the robber baron, as critics today predict? Probably. I really don’t see any place for it to go but there.

But vassals and Standard Oil went the way they went because those models didn’t work. I have to believe that the Facebook model, too, will eventually bend to humanity and practicality.

Will it require government intervention, or worse, outright civic revolt, to loose Facebook’s grip? Of the former, perhaps; of the latter, probably not, but if I knew the answer for sure, I wouldn’t be writing this post, I’d be cashing very large checks.

But I do have confidence that history will repeat itself, if we consider the information economy in wide view. Facebook is a second draft of the social Web, and I assume we aren’t nearly done drawing yet.

Facebook is but the villain of the moment, as Microsoft was, Google is and Apple is becoming.

All links in this post on delicious: http://delicious.com/dougvdotcom/on-facebooks-new-features-privacy-and-the-near-future-of-the-web

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