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Does Facebook Own You? (The "New Privacy")

BY Ari Melber | Thursday, December 20 2007

Everyone knows what you did last summer. In spite of a small victory for privacy last month, Facebook's policies still raise major privacy questions -- and young people may be developing an entirely new conception of privacy online.After this month's dust-up over Facebook's "social advertising" program, Beacon, the company's founder blogged an apology to users. But did you notice that he described the entire problem in the language of the "new privacy"?
"When we first thought of Beacon, our goal was to build a simple product to let people share information across sites with their friends," wrote Mark Zuckerberg on December 5. "It had to be lightweight so it wouldn't get in people's way as they browsed the web, but also clear enough so people would be able to easily control what they shared."
As I describe in this new article, both Facebook and its privacy protesters largely operated within the same model of privacy control--opt-in versus opt-out, sharing versus concealing. The traditional concept of privacy was largely absent from the debate: the premise that what people do on other websites should never be anyone else's business. After all, why would people want to browse the web with "lightweight" surveillance broadcasting their pictures and supposed endorsements of products they happen to buy? And why do people continue to give pictures and personal information to a company that reserves the right to use their photos--and their very identities--to sell more advertising, products and market targeting in the future?
Growing up online, young people assume their inner circle knows their business. The "new privacy" is about controlling how many people know--not if anyone knows. "Information is not private because no one knows it; it is private because the knowing is limited and controlled," argues Danah Boyd, an anthropologist and social-networking expert at the University of California, Berkeley, who studied the feed controversy for a forthcoming article in the journal Convergence. Chris Kelly, Facebook's Chief Privacy Officer, also contends that privacy is shifting from an "absolute right to be let alone" to an emphasis on control. "We don't think [users are] losing privacy as long as there's a control machine and access restrictions," he said in an interview.
Privacy controversies have not slowed Facebook's huge growth, so far. It quadrupled its user base over the past year and is now the most popular website among Americans age 17 to 25. Facebook has achieved near total penetration of the college market, with more than eight out of ten college students registered. Older Americans are also flocking to the site: it draws 250,000 new members every day. Overall, it is the fifth most popular site in the country, ranking just behind YouTube. Young and old use it to divulge loads of personal information, often oblivious to the ramifications and ignorant of the basic features of the technology they use so effortlessly to socialize.
One study at the University of North Carolina, for example, found more than 60 percent of Facebook users posted their political views, relationship status, personal picture, interests and address. People also post a whopping 14 million personal photos every single day, making Facebook the top photo website in the country. Then users diligently label one another in these pictures, enabling visitors to see every photo anyone has ever posted of other people, regardless of their consent or knowledge. Even if users terminate their membership, pictures of them posted by others remain online. But users can't really quit, anyway.
Like guests at the Hotel California, people who check out of Facebook have a hard time leaving. Profiles of former members are preserved in case people want to reactivate their accounts. And all users' digital selves can outlive their creators. As the company's "terms of use" explain, profiles of deceased members are kept "active under a special memorialized status for a period of time determined by us to allow other users to post and view comments."
Facebook's 58 million active members have posted more than 2.7 billion photos, with more than 2.2 billion digital labels of people in the pictures. But what many users may not realize is that the company owns every photo. In fact, everything that people post is automatically licensed to Facebook for its perpetual and transferable use, distribution or public display. The terms of use reserve the right to grant and sublicense all "user content" posted on the site to other businesses. Facebook, a privately held company, rejected a buyout offer from Yahoo! last year and recently sold a 1.6 percent stake to Microsoft, which values the company at up to $15 billion. (Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation bought MySpace, the other leading social network site, for $580 million in 2005.)
Yet the same young people posting all this personal information and relinquishing their photos to corporate control still say they value privacy. A Carnegie Mellon study found that students on Facebook think privacy policy is a "highly important issue," ranking above terrorism, and many would be very concerned if a stranger knew their class schedule or could find out their political views five years from now. Of the students who expressed the highest possible concern about protecting their class schedule, however, 40 percent still posted it on Facebook, and 47 percent of those concerned about political views still provided them. The study concluded there was "little or no relation between participants' reported privacy attitudes and their likelihood of providing certain information."
So why would young people publicize the very information they want to keep private?
Well, the answer takes longer than a blog post. The entire Nation feature is here.