Facebook privacy debate round-up

While I'm still getting comments on my post about How to Leave Facebook, around the web many more instances of discontent with Facebook's policies are rearing their heads.

First, it was comforting to know that I was not alone in the not-so-pleasurable experience of manually deleting all my Facebook content piecemeal. Kate Raynes-Goldie writes:

It took me just under four hours, sitting there clicking delete delete delete. It also didn't help that their software seems to get a bit screwy when you delete a lot of stuff fast. At one point I had left a bunch of groups, but it still had me listed as a member, but wouldn't let me leave again because I wasn't a member. Once you've had your hours of fun, you have to email Facebook again and ask them nicely to delete your account. I thought all of this was an insane requirement, so I emailed our friend Facebook Peter. The reply:

"We ask that users remove their own content so that you can be assured that this information has been cleared before we delete your

Right. A bunch of geeks who make one of the most popular SNSes can't figure out a way to do a mass delete of my user data.

You know what's ironic? I wasn't seriously thinking about deleting my account until I got that email back from Peter and discovered how next to impossible Facebook has made the process.

Anyone else notice that we speak of Facebook as an entity that has its own agency, rather than as a company with a bunch of people behind it? They sure do a good job of reinforcing that notion by making me interact with some guy who is from Facebook, rather than having a last name. Such a tired comparison, but it is totally like Big Brother. We don't question what the Facebook people do, because Facebook isn't people, it's a neutral machine that just is.

That's a poignant illustration of what's wrong with people's attitudes - or lack thereof - towards the 'company' that is Facebook. People - including some of the smartest people I know - have stopped asking questions, not so much because they don't care, but because they don't want to have to reflect upon their perfect little friend-poking, facebook-app-adding, group-joining little sterile world.

In a similar vein, Adam from Calgary went through the same thing, for much the same reasons that I did. It took over 24 hours for Facebook to close his account after he manually deleted all of his data:

All the pleases in the world don't work.

All facebook offers its users is a "Deactivate" option. All of your information and history remains on their servers.

Why do I want to delete my facebook account? All of your pictures, notes, and interests belongs to them. Plus Facebook wants to eat our babies. Put simply, allowing facebook to do whatever it pleases with what is mine, is contradictory to my ideals. And perhaps 260 of my friends finding that I've removed myself from facebook will have greater impact than any other means of protest I have.

So I decided enough was enough, and I have begun a facebook cleanse. And it feels good.

Trust me, it does feel good. Back in my day, we didn't send each virtual beers, we had "real" beers.

Last week over at the Guardian Unlimited, Jemima Kiss had great overview of what she calls "Facebook backlash", but what is really the beginning of a heightened sense of awareness about what constitutes private data, and how we decide how that data gets turned into public knowledge about ourselves. There's also the case of the hype machine getting turned down, as is always the case. Facebook was a rolling snowball of media attention, but now the reality is starting to dawn on people - Facebook simply isn't all that interesting from a technological, sociological, or economical point of view.

Social networks, in particular, are driving the development of these models because the are repositories of so much personal information. But the flip side of that is where the boundary is drawn between personal and private.

Facebook appears to be at the sharp edge of all these issues, partly because it has had so much coverage in the past 12 months and it seems inevitable that it will have to drop off the other side of the hype cycle, for a while at least. But it also has a demographic that is perhaps the most likely to question how their information is used, with an older userbase than Bebo and one that is encouraged to use their real names, unlike MySpace.

From the "people-who-went-about-things-in-a-much-more-clever, mature, and-effective-manner-than-I-did" department, Alan Burlison writes about his similar ordeal trying to leave Facebook, though he took things through the proper channels and actually filed complaints with TRUSTe and the ICO. He was eventually interviewed on Channel 4 news (you can see the video there). It's arguably the most thorough and in-depth account of the recent cases of Facebook's blatant disregard for their own Privacy Policy, and the one that best raises the question of why Facebook doesn't provide an easy means to delete your own account, when they've shown that they actually have one readily available.

In their written response to C4 they say that "Facebook does not use any information from deactivated accounts for advertising purposes." If that is the case, why do they retain the information at all? And although they aren't using it for "advertising purposes", are they making other use of it, and if so, what?

I'm still waiting for responses from either TRUSTe or the ICO, I'll be sure to blog about them when I receive them. In the meantime, if you want to get Facebook to delete your account entirely, you can always try mailing them, quoting the clear precedent they have set by closing my account. I really can't understand why Facebook make the whole process so difficult, they are an extremely popular service and the amount of work involved in closing accounts properly is tiny in comparison to the volume of activity the site sees.

In his cleverly titled "Prisoners of Facebook" post, Ben King writes:

Well, it is their drunken party pics, after all - why should FB keep a copy? I have to say I don’t like the idea of some faceless US corporation keeping copies of those pictures of me with the seventies moustache and wig which grace my FB page. Particularly if they won’t tell me why they want them.

Facebook is at a bit of a turning point, it seems to me. My social circle is pretty much bang in the middle of the Facebook demographic. In April, everyone was raving about how much they liked it. Now lots of people are saying they’re bored with it. (Though just as many are clearly still spending too much of their lives on it).

The Microsoft investment could be the start of the transition from plucky little startup that everyone loves to faceless corporate behemoth which people either tolerate, or are mildly afraid of. Carry on with the creepy data hoarding, and there won’t be much ‘mildly’ about it. Anyone for ‘OpenSocial’?

Like I mentioned before, Facebook is not only creepy and overbearing, but it's boring. There is something intrinsically valuable in building relationships, meeting friends, socializing over a pint or four, and building your own 'groups' - in the real world. The fact that these things require more effort in person than, say, on a sanitized sterile white web page managed by an all-seeing-eye, is a testament to the importance and 'raison d'être' of face-to-face interaction. When all the Facebooks, MySpaces, Flickrs, Youtubes and their ilk and offspring have faded into dust, you and I will still be looking forward to enjoying a properly poured, non-virtual pint of Guinness together - anywhere, anytime.

But the all-time most entertaining writeup of why Facebook sucks goes to the enigmatic TommyV2. It gets funnier and funnier as it goes on, only because it's such a poignant writeup of your stereotypical Facebook user. I'll quote bits and parts of it here, but trust me, you want to read the whole thing:

Sometimes it takes a real man to listen to someone’s pain. I get to do it on a daily basis, oftentimes not by my own admission. Today’s life-threatening terrorist force comes not from the Middle East, but from your very own computer screen. It’s called Facebook, and it’s going to ruin your life – if it hasn’t already.


You sign up for an account. You put in some bullshit quotes and little blurbs about yourself, like you were making a singles ad. You are in a way, because you’re about to whore yourself out to the lowest bidder.


You friend writes on your “wall.” They say something meaningful like “OMG I haven’t seen you in ages! We gotta hang out soon!” Weird, eh? Last time I checked I hung out with my friends all the time. In fact, we were having so much fun hanging out that we forgot to not see each other in ages.


You start using Facebook as a filtering service for your entire life. You start to judge people’s worth based on their profile. How many books they have read? What do they listen to? Is their life quote deep or just funny? Does it change every day? Oh my god, this person likes dogs too! Must be a great person…!


You die, finally. No one notices because you weren’t there to post that as your status message. The end.


I, as a human being, implore you to stop using Facebook. Delete your account. You’ll be surprised when no one even notices. It is one of the most evil devices ever created and it’s destroying your life. You are hopelessly addicted and it will be the end of your natural life. I guarantee if you can make it 2 weeks without it, your life will become better in every way. Please share this article with everyone and see if it raises any concern – you’ll be surprised. And ashamed…and you should be.

Seriously, just go read it.

As with many other things, though, it's the personal toll in leaving Facebook that is hardest to quantify. When visiting a friend or a colleague, four times out of five I'll glance at their laptop and see their Facebook profile page. Driving past breast Best Buy or Future Shop in Laval, they've got these enormous Facebook posters up, along with a list of - brace yourselves - Facebook-compliant mobile devices that they have available for sale. Flipping through radio stations I'll catch the DJ on CHOM 97.7 talking about his Facebook friend list - right after an Apple ad, and right before a segment where he pokes fun at bloggers, reminding them to 'brush their teeth' in between all their blogging, no less... (to be fair, the French-language stations are much more condescending and skeptical about Facebook). Visiting the Bell Canada site for a friend, I'm greeted by a big Facebook Mobile logo.

And for the coup de grâce, people that I mistook for friends basically ceased acknowledging my existence outside of Facebook. When I had an account they'd be all "Hey! Long time no see! Good to hear from you!" and would write the occasional blurb on the ole' wall. However, once I left, nary a voice mail, SMS or email was received from them ever again. Leaving Facebook made me feel like the clichéd lone samurai being exiled from his village, never looking back. Well, ok - in this case the 'village' was composed nearly entirely of spoiled english-speaking upper-middle-class white hipster kids - but still, it was a bit jarring to feel that all those 'lost connections' Facebook had seemingly helped restore had suddenly disappeared again. Proof positive though, that they weren't ever real - just another way that Facebook takes the smallest fleeting figments of your imaginary social 'life' and blows them up until you start believing them yourself.

Someone I long looked up to and respected as a close friend, a colleague and a mentor straight-up called me a 'juvenile, puerile, loud crybaby' for leaving facebook and writing about it. We never even contacted each other on Facebook - we'd always just chat over IM, email, or run into each other at a Cafe or something. It's somewhat ironic that one of my most valuable personal connections was broken when I left Facebook not because our interactions occurred predominantly on Facebook, but because they didn't like the idea of me leaving Facebook. I suppose it's yet another example of my departure helping me identify which bonds in my life were stronger than the fading scotch-tape of Facebook's structure. Ok, maybe not that deep, but something along those lines. :)

So, what can you do?

You can follow in our footsteps - us the great explorers of this new, Facebook-free frontier - and close your account. You can convince others to do the same. You can file a complaint with TrustE, the privacy body of which Facebook is a member (yet doesn't subscribe to its regulations, since you can't easily close your account if you want to). You can get back to your normal self.

Get off Facebook, get on with your life. You'll thank me later.

Has a nice ring to it, no? :D


Wednesday, November 28th, 2007
mir's picture

What if I don't like Guinness can we still drink beer?


Cory Doctorow agrees with you. I am not sure if do completely.

My arguments against (your arguments) are thus:

1/ Audience attention and audience demographics have always been a commodity, Facebook is only taking this commodification process one step further by asking users to provide the information, rather than getting it through ratings weeks, purchase patterns and market research. Yes we make their jobs easier, which is perhaps a bad thing. But since this is information I am willingly giving to them - how is it a privacy issue? I clearly don't think pictures of me and my dog are private, and as to what they will do with the data - they will use it to try and sell me shit, just like they would if I took out a subscription to "girl and dog magazine"

2/ The tools we use to express our relationships to each other do not dictate the depth of the relationship. Facebook does not create shallow bonds it may do a better job of expressing them though. (IMHO) If I use facebook to communicate in a shallow (OMG) kinda way, then sure I will not see a significant value in facebook as a social utility. If I use it to express bonds that are meaningful and not shallow than doesn't it's utility as a meaning-making device increase? The nice thing about Facebook is of all the tools I think it offers the most potential to mimic peoples actual social behaviours. People choose to use the apps they like, and then use them in a way that fits their personalities. That's why some FB users make profile pages that look like myspace and others make profile pages that are like a textual answering machine and other people make giant walls with entourages. It's not as simplistic as you are making it out to be here.

3/ Peoples patterns of social bonding are getting very diverse, this week-end I made friends with one guy who lives in Hong-Kong and one who lives in Sweden. The Swedish guy is on Facebook, the Hong-Kong guy ( who by the way I think you'd really like) is totally anti-social apps for very similar reasons to you. I am willing to bet that I will stay in touch with the Swedish guy down the line whereas I can't be so sure about Mr Hong-Kong, he's not going to stay on my social radar the same way - so we'll end up drifting away. So for me, social software despite maybe the limitations of it's utility is important glue for holding some links together.

But hey let's grab a few bee-ahs (that's how Australians say it) when I get home and we can fight it out with an arm wrestle.

Wednesday, November 28th, 2007
stevenmansour's picture

Hi Mir,

We can still have beer. I'll still have a Guinness and I suppose you can have some fruity raspberry-flavored light Miller Draft or something. To each their own. :p

Audience attention and audience demographics have always been a commodity [...] But since this is information I am willingly giving to them - how is it a privacy issue? I clearly don't think pictures of me and my dog are private, and as to what they will do with the data - they will use it to try and sell me shit ...

  1. I'm not sure what you mean by 'audience attention' or 'demographics' being a commodity, nor the link you draw between that and data privacy. I am glad that you chose the word 'audience' though, since it illustrates your awareness - subconscious though it may be - that you're watching a show, a soap opera, a piece of entertainment: one that's illustrated by the careful organization of you and your friends' lives.
  2. Just because you willingly hand over your data doesn't make the privacy issue any less pressing. The fact of the matter is that there is much more happening with your data than 'them trying to sell you shit', which has been gone over ad infinitum and is beyond the scope of this comment. It's not a conspiracy - the truth is far simpler and far more interesting than "Facebook = CIA". Everything you ever post, write, or comment on Facebook is available to any organization to collect, process, and build a profile on you - whether they be Kellogg's cereal or Homeland Security. The fact that you're blindly handing all of it over without batting an eyelash doesn't change the severity of the problem, though the nature of the problem is shown to be more about educating users like yourself than "blaming Facebook for making an easy-to-use, attractive data-mining service". Just because you're posting seemingly harmless little pieces of information on there doesn't mean that they can't build a more accurate portrait of you than some of your best friends can have. Alone, those little pieces of data seem insignificant, but add them all up together and anyone gets a pretty good summary of who 'Mir' really is.

The tools we use to express our relationships to each other do not dictate the depth of the relationship. Facebook does not create shallow bonds it may do a better job of expressing them though. [...] The nice thing about Facebook is of all the tools I think it offers the most potential to mimic peoples actual social behaviours. [...] It's not as simplistic as you are making it out to be here.

  1. Relationship you conduct over Facebook, email, the telephone, and mostly in person will all have different depths of emotional anchorage. There's no way around that. Are you really going to sit there and tell me that you feel the same way about relationships you've established (and maintain) on Facebook as those that you develop with friends you hang out with in the real world, around town, every week? If your answer is 'yes' then you might want to rethink the value you're giving to the relationships facilitated and mediated via some company's money-making machine.
  2. I never said anything was wrong about the tools and functionality offered by Facebook. It's a beautifully programmed application that's obviously been molded into shape by people [social scientists?] who know what they are doing. I would be the biggest Facebook cheerleader (hmmm, not that "big cheerleaders" are necessarily what I'm into...) if Facebook was owned, operated an run in the same manner as, say, Wikipedia, and had a much more transparent procedure for how they treated your data, and offered better means to control your privacy settings, and wasn't run by people with ties to shady organizations, and many many other ands.
  3. No, it's not simplistic at all. It's all incredibly complex, and that complexity, that barrier of entry to understanding the implications of it all, is a big part of what makes otherwise brilliant people - you - hand over the near entirety of your online persona to Facebook, with nary a question asked.

I am willing to bet that I will stay in touch with the Swedish guy down the line whereas I can't be so sure about Mr Hong-Kong, he's not going to stay on my social radar the same way - so we'll end up drifting away. So for me, social software despite maybe the limitations of it's utility is important glue for holding some links together.

  1. Doesn't that strike you as odd though? That almost all of your 'social radar' is owned and operated by some company in the US, with people you never even met having full access to it? It would take you the exact same amount of time to send an email to Mr. Hong Kong as would to write a wall post on Mr. Sweden's Facebook profile. So, you're basically going to abandon one line of (potentially fruitful) friendship because it's not Facebook based. Social Network Fascism, anyone? ;) It's been said that the cost of non-participation in Facebook is very high for people like Mr Hong Kong and myself, and anyone "under 30, working in the web industry, in a developed country". I didn't really get it until now, since I'm under 30, working [mostly] in the web industry, living in a developed country, yet not on Facebook but doing better, and feeling more 'connected' than I ever have. But now I see what they meant by that - certain people have been convinced that if a relationship can't be maintained on Facebook, then it's not worth maintaining at all. That's a super-interesting, super-scary fact to realize.

Wednesday, November 28th, 2007
mir's picture

I just sent this post to mr. hong kong ( who it turns out lurks on skype incessantly ) and who I have already spoken to 100% more then mr. sweden

Just to prove you right and me wrong.

I hope he'll weigh in with why he hates the Fb.

more soon, my plane is boarding.


Thursday, December 13th, 2007
stevenmansour's picture

Thanks for that link, gostram - raises more interesting questions about the case-by-case, ad-hoc manner in which Facebook addresses privacy and account deletion issues. Not sure about what's happening in Alain's case though, hopefully they'll be a follow-up article.

Friday, October 10th, 2008
alex's picture

can we really blame facebook for this tho? isnt it the users fault for posting this info. I did some research into this (on my site http://www.digiwebbs.com/social_network_research/) and a result was that a minority of people were very concerned about their privacy online that most users are aware of the privacy risks, but are not concerned...which is quite shocking!

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010
Camila Culver's picture

 That's amazing how with time some things still remain the same. Even now in 2010, facebook is still blamed for the "I can't delete my FB page" issue. However, the system has evolved a bit, a couple of years ago there was a problem of "dead profiles", now FB team made a special service where you can report a person's death and with time the profile will be deleted from public search and will be available only for friends as to commemorate the person.

Jane Breadly
Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010
Jane Breadly's picture

 Yeah, it's getting freaking scary the way Facebook trying to conquer the world. hehe... But on the other hand we just have to take it, as the world is moving on with all the new technologies and sooner or later we all will be listed in "base".


Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010
Gary's picture

 "Get off Facebook, get on with your life. You'll thank me later." - XD, you are so right! Sometimes I can't understand why people are getting so concentrated on virtual life rather than on the real one. Go out people, make love, not war, study, make babies! ;)

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