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.