Is There A Conflict Between Open Social Graphs And Your Privacy?

from the what-about-your-friends? dept

Techblogger Robert Scoble has apparently been barred from Facebook for running a script from Plaxo to export his relationship information (or "social graph," as the kids say), in violation of the site's terms of service. On one read, this makes him a martyr to the cause of open social graphs. I'm a bit more ambivalent.

Intuitively, it makes sense for users to be able to make whatever use they please of information about their own social networks. But in a social network, "your" information is someone else's as well. And on a site like Facebook, much of that information will have been provided in the context of a set of individually calibrated privacy controls, by people who expected it to be used in that context by a limited audience. Exporting that information without permission, then, raises important privacy questions.

Within Facebook, users have a fair amount of control over who can access what information about them. I can choose to block particular users on Facebook, rendering myself wholly invisible to them, as though I weren't even on the network. I can decide how much of my profile information will be visible to friends, to people who live in my region, to the general Facebook membership, and to the Internet at large. I can even decide how aggressively public, so to speak, such information will be. Lots of Facebook users are happy to let friends view their relationship status, but disable those status notifications in their news feeds, to prevent everyone they know from being simultaneously blasted with the news that "Bob has gone from being in a relationship to being single." Automated data collection "liberates" information from those constraints, possibly against the wishes of the people who provided it.

It's true that a script can only sweep up information that would already have been visible to a particular user anyway. But privacy is not just a function of the publicity of your personal information, but of the searchability and aggregability of that information. Public closed-circuit surveillance cameras, for instance, typically capture the same information that a casual observer on the street is already privy to. But we recognize that being spotted by diverse random pedestrians, or even being captured on diffuse and disconnected private security cameras, is not intrusive in the same way as being captured on a citywide surveillance system that is searchable from a centralized location. By the same token, I may be unhappy with the possibility of someone forming an external public database full of data I've freely shared with more narrow communities—personal, regional, or whatever.

None of this is to deny the initial intuition that it's desirable for users' social graphs to be portable to some extent. But as with all forms of intimacy, openness and privacy complement each other: We feel free to share information about ourselves to the extent that we have some assurances about how that information will be used. So while it's one thing to argue that Facebook should enable greater openness or portability in some particular way, subject to user control, it seems like quite another to criticize them for enforcing a rule about indiscriminate automated data collection.


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  1.  
    identicon
    Mark Murphy, Jan 3rd, 2008 @ 5:28pm

    Guerrilla Action

    One citizen's relationship to another, and the rules by which that relationship (and its details) are made available to some subset of the world, must exist outside any specific social network, tool, or other Web site. With that opinion in mind...

    And on a site like Facebook, much of that information will have been provided in the context of a set of individually calibrated privacy controls, by people who expected it to be used in that context by a limited audience.

    The "individually calibrated privacy controls" should encompass who should see what information, and not just within a single social network/tool/site. Compliant sites should, therefore, only block exports of information that are themselves blocked by the privacy controls and overall standards/rules for social graph data exchange, not a blanket "you can't export anything" or "you can't export email addresses" or "we own your data, so go suck eggs" or some such.

    Within Facebook, users have a fair amount of control over who can access what information about them. I can choose to block particular users on Facebook, rendering myself wholly invisible to them, as though I weren't even on the network. I can decide how much of my profile information will be visible to friends, to people who live in my region, to the general Facebook membership, and to the Internet at large. I can even decide how aggressively public, so to speak, such information will be. Lots of Facebook users are happy to let friends view their relationship status, but disable those status notifications in their news feeds, to prevent everyone they know from being simultaneously blasted with the news that "Bob has gone from being in a relationship to being single." Automated data collection "liberates" information from those constraints, possibly against the wishes of the people who provided it.

    This paragraph epitomizes the problem. Your focus is exclusively on Facebook. PR notwithstanding, Facebook is not a social network -- it is a tool that facilitates the publicizing of the real-world social network. Facebook is merely a window on the world -- it is not the world. Everything you've stated in this paragraph are real-world constraints on the desired visibility of one citizen's portion of the social network. In other words, they're not Facebook's issue exclusively. Framing it as such lends weight to the Facebook attitude that they own the social graph, which is morally repugnant.

    None of this is to deny the initial intuition that it's desirable for users' social graphs to be portable to some extent.

    Facebook is not a social graph -- it is a tool that helps people describe the real-world social graph. The issue of "portability" is a matter of greed among tool-makers like Facebook, who labor under the naive supposition that they somehow own everybody's relationships with everyone else. I liken it to firms who try to copyright facts.

    But as with all forms of intimacy, openness and privacy complement each other: We feel free to share information about ourselves to the extent that we have some assurances about how that information will be used.

    Absolutely. Which is why we need standards, rules, and watchdogs for adherence to the rules for this information. And, we need the tool-makers to follow the standards and rules, plus respect the watchdogs. IMHO, tool-makers that are venture-backed will need to be beaten soundly over the head repeatedly in order for them to make those agreements...which is why the Scoble incident is useful.

    So while it's one thing to argue that Facebook should enable greater openness or portability in some particular way, subject to user control, it seems like quite another to criticize them for enforcing a rule about indiscriminate automated data collection.

    Theoretically, I agree with you. Practically, criticizing them for cases like this is going to be necessary to force change.

     

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  2.  
    identicon
    Shun, Jan 3rd, 2008 @ 9:40pm

    Pot meet Kettle

    The idea that Scoble is doing more damage to Facebook than Facebook itself is laughable.

    The problem is, Scoble discovered initiative and decided to use Facebook tools to chart his social progress. That he did so should not condemn him to be "banned" from anything. It should actually shed a light on how these social networking tools are being used by real human beings.

    Scoble's real sin seems to be that he shared his method of charting with the outside world. Now, tell me, how many people are doing this in secret, without blogging about it? At least Scoble had the cojones to reveal his "sources and methods". Hackers, and other bloggers, might not be so happy to disclose.

    Therein lies the problem. Yes, Facebook users are happy to share their little private worlds with their friends, and have some control over what other users see of themselves. What prevents Facebook from seeing far more, and how does Facebook use this information to bring in marketters? Just what is Facebook afraid of, anyway? Maybe Facebook is/was doing what Scoble documented, but on a company-wide basis, as opposed to an individual user doing this.

    With Facebook's other privacy violations, I wouldn't be surprised.

     

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  3.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 4th, 2008 @ 9:42pm

    Expectation of Privacy

    Public closed-circuit surveillance cameras, for instance, typically capture the same information that a casual observer on the street is already privy to. But we recognize that being spotted by diverse random pedestrians, or even being captured on diffuse and disconnected private security cameras, is not intrusive in the same way as being captured on a citywide surveillance system that is searchable from a centralized location.

    The Supreme Court disagrees with you. See Open fields doctrine (Wikipedia).

     

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  4.  
    identicon
    Questionsall, Jan 5th, 2008 @ 5:43am

    How Scoble was discovered

    Shun, to be clear, Scoble was discovered by Facebook's detection tools, not by his own disclosures. His he actual was still unable (NDA) to discuss the script he was using. This is somewhat incidental to the meta-discussion, but I still felt it important.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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