What does it mean that our public square is a private place?
I just read this opinion piece written by Jillian York and published by Aljazeera.com. York discusses “How social network policies are changing speech and privacy norms” and she makes the point that there’s a big difference between our legal rights as citizens and the way Facebook has defined its policies, and by extension our “rights” inside Facebook.
So, for example, there’s the question of whether we can show pictures of breastfeeding our children on Facebook. The policy on this has changed – nowadays they say yes, but they used to remove such pictures.
Another example might be more important: whether you can be anonymous. As York points out, Facebook might have an opinion about this, and Zuckerberg seems to – she quotes him as having said “having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity” – and yet their vested interest in this question is related to making sure they’ve accurately targeted you for advertisements.
I want to make the case that the “real-life” version of anonymity in Facebook is really just privacy in the simplest sense.
If I am even half-aware of the extent of the surveillance and tracking that goes on when I log into Facebook under my real name, which I don’t even think I am, then I’d tend to use a separate browser, with cleared cookies, and an anonymous Facebook account in order to do absolutely anything without it being tracked. In other words, anonymity is what it takes to do anything privately on Facebook.
Now, you might argue that I can just not go to Facebook at all if I want to do private things, and I’m sure that’s Facebook position as well. But the truth is, Facebook is the world’s public square. Some enormous fraction of the world visits Facebook at least once a week. Exclusion from this would be a big deal.
In any case, it’s weird that decisions like this, that affect our notions of privacy, are being decided by some dude who’s probably thinking more about ad revenue than anything else, under pressure from shareholders.
Not that it’s a new problem. When I was growing up in Lexington, MA, over the cold winters we’d hang out in the Burlington Mall. It was the public square of its time, and yes it was utterly commercial and private, and of course they excluded anyone who they didn’t like the looks of, with security guards. Even so, they didn’t check ID’s at the door.