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‘Sharing is Not an Inherently Private Activity’. Really. Really??!

Posted May 9th, 2010 by Andrew Goodman

Ever shared an ice cream cone with your dog? Or a lover? Or a phone conversation with your mother? Or a document with a business partner? In Facebook-speak, these aren’t “inherently private” activities. Facebook developers, its CEO, other users, and the planet at large, evidently, should be able to lap at your ice cream cone, etc. After all, you’re sharing.

I’m going slightly over the top to emphasize that Facebook just compounds its insensitivity by resorting to vague language and unscripted retorts intended to explain to the rest of us how it all works. Facebook execs in charge of the country would seemingly enact laws allowing you to share the contents of your home (etc.) with law enforcement, or just curious software developers or neighbors, for no probable cause of any felony being committed. After all, silly, isn’t that what you signed on for when you became part of their society?

Fortunately, outside of Facebook’s walled garden, we still have laws in place that allow some solace in a little activity called dissent. Even if most of the carping out here won’t make it into FB’s development pipeline, we’re pleased to be allowed (legally, at least) to say what we think.

Let’s preface that with a nod to practicality and taking care of oneself first. Defensive driving means don’t assume the driver to your right won’t sail through that red light. You really should assume that all emails you send could be seen by everyone. That doesn’t translate into “email is inherently sharing so is not private,” just that despite the best-laid plans and the inherently somewhat private architecture of email… shit happens, so be careful and practice safe emailing. Of course the same goes for Facebook.

But that being said, your web host has a fiduciary duty not to share your email with everyone, and analogously, Facebook shouldn’t be so cavalier about massive changes that throw users under the bus, cause them major distress, and (giggle, tee-hee) cause inane personal posts like “hangover horn” to be tweeted to the planet because that user didn’t understand how this week’s settings worked. (Yes, I know. Lots of people deliberately share their hangover information. That’s some people’s style. I really doubt that the same goes for the “hate my boss” and “hate my job” posts, however.)

The vague Facebook “executive retort” rhetoric is not up to the task. It reminds me a lot of the old, worn debates about “types of freedom,” mainly because many of our current attitudes towards rights (legal, constitutionally enshrined protections of basic liberties) evolved from what Friedrich von Hayek called “negative freedom”. That was the minimalist view of the role of government, that saw it as vitally important that we as free folks be protected against arbitrary authority, in contrast with (Friedrich charged) creeping socialist views that the government should be helping people access opportunities as well (so-called “positive freedom” that can have a sinister ring if it leads to meddling, overspending, and other things “free folks” don’t like).

As stilted as the concept of “negative freedom” is, it’s not a bad way of summing up how people in constitutional democracies feel about arbitrary authority or external interlopers (the government, other people, etc.) crossing a line where they violate one’s personal zone of freedom. Privacy in the modern digital era creates a massive new challenge that runs way ahead of current legal systems to keep up, but I’ve never subscribed to the view that “you don’t have privacy anymore, get over it.” Maybe that’s because I believe in a longer-lived principle that justice means, quite simply, keeping your contracts and bargains. User privacy arrangements may be fast-moving, but they’re like any other commitment. You can’t break a deal and sell people out. It’s Wrong.

Regarding these “types” of “freedom,” Yale professor Ian Shapiro helpfully came along (just before the Cold War and its silly rhetoric finally ended) and pointed out that the argument is sterile, because debates about freedom must refer to a composite sketch of real world “liberties” involving four key components: actions (what), agents (who, or to whom), ends (for what purpose), and legitimacy (under what social and legal and constitutional framework that makes one person’s freedom enforceable in a particular way).

Needless to say, the Facebook kids don’t care about any of that. Clearly underthinking the matter, they fail to recognize that concepts like privacy and/or sharing (to say nothing of “inherent”) can’t be tossed around in vague fashion if they’re to make any sense. What am I sharing, with whom, for what purpose, under what social, legal, and constitutional (or other relevant) framework? The truly scary thing is that Facebook believes the framework is Facebook. It is literally its own world. Outside that world, we have (irrelevant, to them) norms, laws, concerns, and social mores.

It’s truly scary. Honestly, they need an attitude adjustment. Or in similar words from Danny Sullivan: “they need to get their shit together.”

P.S.: Facebook, again: “sharing” is not “broadcast”. While it is not “inherently” private, privacy enters the equation just as sure as you hung that tie on your dorm room doorknob to keep your roommate away when you were in there, um, “sharing something privately”.

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4 Responses to “‘Sharing is Not an Inherently Private Activity’. Really. Really??!”

  1. I could not agree more with your well-stated points. I was just telling someone today how much I despise the constant changes/intrusions/mistakes of Facebook. A year ago, I felt GRATITUDE toward Facebook management for providing me with a valuable tool. Now, I believe they are tone-deaf jerks. You have to make a boat load of mistakes to turn deep loyalty into total disgust. The trouble is, they don’t care what users think, because they believe they are too big to fail. I’m waiting … a new option will be coming soon, and I’ll jump ship faster than you can say “Betty White.”

  2. In the meantime, Lyn, you may wish to join my new startup — Macebook.

  3. Jen McGahan says:

    Andrew, your phrase “Facebook kids” is chilling. Privacy is not an outdated concept and we should defend it dearly. As a mom, I’m forever telling my kids to remember how their online presence reflects their character, for obvious reasons. However I do realize there will be slip-ups, and times when we would wish to “take it back,” which actually is becoming an outdated concept. We certainly don’t need websites that we contract with to sabotage our intentions and our web persona with their devil-may-care attitudes about sharing. My projected fear is that these breaches of trust between social sites and their users will “require” an outside third party (the State) to step in and “help” us to regulate ourselves, within social networks and everywhere else on the Internet. Freedom’s other cheek is responsibility (for both users and website developers); as soon as some Federal agency decides that an opinion is wrong and shared too freely, it could simply disappear from view, or be prosecuted. Citizens who care about preserving their rights must continue this dialogue in public and at home. Thank you for this post.

  4. trafficsoar says:

    I was just telling someone today how much I despise the constant changes/intrusions/mistakes of Facebook. I believe they are tone-deaf jerks.


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