As the EC proposes a reform of data protection rules, Sinead O’Brien and Philippa White debate whether it is social networking sites that violate our privacy online
Vivian Reding, Vice-President of the European Commission, recently announced new proposals to reform the data protection rules in the European Union. In relation to these reforms she has said, “a US-based social network company that has millions of active users in Europe needs to comply with EU rules”. No prizes for guessing who she is referring to.
While the reform of data protection rules of the European Union is needed in our technologically advancing society, there is an argument to be made that Facebook is being unfairly scapegoated in order to justify the enactment of these, perhaps paranoid, reforms. Keeping Ms Reding’s proposals in mind, do social networks like Facebook lead to the violation of your privacy? I would argue that the social networks themselves do not.
To violate is to break, infringe, or transgress (a law, rule, agreement, promise, instruction etc). Has Facebook, for example, ever broken any laws, rules, agreements, promises or instructions? The astonishing conclusion that you will be forced to draw is that no, it has not. Indeed Facebook has faced many charges and allegations since its inception, but no judgement has been handed down to date to say that they have violated anyone’s privacy.
Section Two of the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities primarily states that as a user, you own all of the content and information you post on Facebook, and you can control how it is shared through your privacy and application settings. This is subject to an additional provision which states that content covered by intellectual property (IP) rights, such as photos and videos (“IP content”), are granted to Facebook under an IP License to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook.
This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account, unless your content has been shared with others and they have not deleted it.
This is a standard clause that is also used by other information sharing websites. YouTube has a similar clause in its terms that is slightly more far-reaching given the activity engaged in by the site. Section 8.1 states that when you upload or post content to YouTube, you grant to YouTube what is simply an IP License. Section 8.2 goes a bit further by stating that the licenses granted by you in textual comments you submit as content are perpetual and irrevocable.
Back in 2009, Facebook announced its new terms of service, which were very similar to those of YouTube cited above. The major difference was the widespread user outrage and criticism that followed.
The furore that arises every time Facebook announces a change in its terms or settings may be attributed to the arrogant and audacious manner in which Facebook’s founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, goes about making them. Unfortunately, one cannot be sued for simply being arrogant.
The central idea behind the changes imposed in February 2009 was to protect Facebook from liability in the event that images or messages you upload end up residing on servers outside of Facebook’s direct control, as is oftentimes the nature of the internet.
It has always been the case that you should approach sharing any information about yourself on the internet with caution, so why treat the information you share on Facebook otherwise?
Facebook endeavours to protect your information and your privacy to whatever degree you choose by offering you a variety of privacy settings. But as with anything, it can only go so far in protecting you from people uploading malicious viruses, or protecting your information from dexterous hackers.
As Wikileaks has aptly demonstrated, if confidential American diplomatic cables can be exposed to the masses, then there is no guarantee that the information you provide to Facebook will remain private. But rather than such breaches of privacy being the fault of Facebook, this is instead a fact of life when it comes to sharing anything online.
Facebook is constantly being criticised for violating user’s privacy rights, when it is really our society as a whole that undervalues such basic information as our name and age. Certainly, anyone with a Tesco Clubcard has enabled Tesco to gather intelligence on members’ purchasing habits, so that they know quite literally what you eat for breakfast.
Facebook, in and of itself does not violate your privacy rights. If anything, the ‘friend’ who photographed you while you were doing nothing of interest and promptly tagged you in his/her Facebook album can be credited for that. And if you were moronic enough to have yourself photographed shoving poker chips between your bare butt-cheeks while drunk at a party, then I’m afraid the only person violating your right to privacy is you.
– Sinead O’Brien
Facebook is a remarkable tool. It has revolutionised the way in which 600 million people worldwide communicate. It can be informative, useful and enjoyable. Alas, this 21st century phenomenon has dramatically changed the world in which we live and has brought the idea of personal privacy to its knees.
One might argue that when one joins Facebook there is not so much an invasion of privacy as there is a voluntary surrender of it – it is we who are eagerly signing up to it at the end of the day. It is we who are choosing to reveal to a large community, parts of ourselves that were once only shown to those closest to us.
Indeed, how could it be an invasion of privacy when it is we who are choosing to expose ourselves like this, selling our souls piece by piece, day by day, as we type personal (and more often than not, trite) ramblings into the online void?
This might sound a tad melodramatic but the point is that now everyone – from your employer, your neighbour and even that guy from Commerce with whom you had one awkward date back in first year and now are loathe to even salute in the Arts block – can glimpse, at any given moment, into your daily life and all because you have chosen this.
Alas, I digress. It may be the case that an invitation rather than an invasion has brought Facebook into our private lives. Nevertheless, there are undoubtedly situations when Facebook oversteps its mark and disrespects the privacy of its users.
Firstly, consider the privacy policies of Facebook. The user can decide what is made public and what is made private. There is an option to allow only ‘Friends’ view photos, read status updates and one can even prevent all ‘Friends’ from viewing any of the comments left on ones ‘Wall’.
This may be all well and good but from a privacy-preserving perspective, there is one gaping flaw in the system: it is the user who must actively choose these settings. In other words, the default settings leave most parts of the profile viewable to more people than one’s few hundred so-called ‘Friends’.
Therefore, every time Facebook decides to revamp its image and change its policies, the onus is on the individual user to reset the privacy settings. Not only can this be troublesome and confusing for users – particularly for those who are unfamiliar with the technical intricacies of Facebook – but also the changes are often unannounced and therefore go unnoticed.
Secondly, in regards to content, the user only has a limited amount of control over what appears on the site. One may have the ability to delete content from one’s own profile but oftentimes this simply does not offer sufficient control over privacy.
Think about all the incriminating videos, employment-jeopardising photos and potentially relationship-shattering comments that have surfaced somehow on the average Facebook wall. Yes, photos can be ‘detagged’ and comments can be removed but quite often the damage is already done by the time these vital clicks are executed.
Furthermore, in the case of photos, videos and notes, even if one manages to remove them from one’s own profile, they are still visible to a vast number of prying eyes on other profiles. Thus, user-to-user approval does not have to be sought before certain items are published and controversial or damaging content can hang proudly and publicly from one user’s wall and other users are left powerless.
Privacy means being selective – selective about what information we disclose to others and selective about with whom we share this information and when. With Facebook, this selectivity is removed.
Whether you are a minimalist in terms of how much you reveal about yourself online or whether you are, on the other hand, shamelessly vain and feel confident in the fact that there is a public demand to know that you ‘like’ sleeping, are inspired by Gandhi and have proficiency in French, your privacy will, either way, be invaded somehow on Facebook.
As mentioned above, others can publish information about you or a photo of you without your consent and it requires a great deal of effort to remove it from Facebook completely. Moreover, the data you upload onto Facebook is revealed to a wider audience than you may realise. Much of your personal information, for example, is passed on to third parties such as companies who specialise in tailor-made marketing.
In conclusion, privacy means the ability to select what we put into the limelight and when. Facebook does not give us this power. Therefore, maybe you do not believe in a God and think the idea of a Big Brother belongs only in Orwell novels. However, if you have a Facebook page, you will know that someone, somewhere out there is currently watching you.
– Phillipa White