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The Social Networking Contract

The following is an unpublished piece that I wrote for The News.  As with my last post, I haven’t vetted this fully in several months, so I again reserve the right to amend my remarks.

 

I want to apologize in advance for beating a dead horse with this piece.  Or more accurately, resurrecting a horse that has already been brutally murdered and beating it with a sledge hammer.  I know that after a special program, several special school meetings and several articles on “reputable” national news outlets, Choaties are sick of hearing about internet privacy.  We’re sick of being preached to about the dangers of sharing information online, the potential scams into which we could fall, the risk of colleges and employers having access to sensitive personal information.  So I’m sorry, but a conversation that I had over spring break compelled me to think about the implications of the internet age.  It occurred to me that Facebook, Twitter and the like aren’t just providing us a social networking service:  they’re fundamentally changing the way we live our lives.  Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook and big-screen badass nerd, has consistently held that Facebook is dedicated to the pursuit of a more open world, and I, for one, believe him.  But that world does have consequences.  Every personal detail that you give to Facebook is embedded in a data base somewhere, just like all of your Google searches, all of your Tweets, etc.  That data base will never go away, meaning that you have essentially given over your personal information in perpetuity to corporations who profit from your willingness to tell them next to everything (remember those “Terms and Conditions” that you ignored?  That’s what they said; Facebook owns everything).

None of what I said above is new.  We all know the risks.  We all know the implications.  That’s why I told The News in November that I felt the Special Program regarding internet scandals was useless (a quote that The Daily Beast was all too eager to contextually boggle).  So what am I telling you that’s new?

I think all of the privacy advocates, all of the adults who are worried about us, all of those who are outraged at the questions about the ways in which Facebook/Google/whoever uses our information are fundamentally missing a key point:  We all signed up for this.  We chose to use the internet.  And, by extension, we chose to give up certain personal information.  At the point where we have voluntarily handed over personal information to a corporation, what right do we have to question how they use that information?  A comedy group from UMBC recorded a (hilarious) YouTube video entitled “Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook Apology”, in which the actor playing Zuckerberg quips, “I’m sorry that when you handed over personal information to us, we then had that personal information”.  It sounds silly, but that is literally what the arguments I’ve heard boil down to.  If you give me a dollar, you have no right to tell me how to use that dollar.  Similarly, we have given content to Facebook by our own free will, and that content is now available to Facebook.  What is the problem with that?  Why should we care how Facebook uses our data?

But Evan, the worried parties counter, don’t you feel insecure knowing that Facebook has all of your personal information on a permanent database?  Don’t you worry what they might do with that information?  Quite frankly, no.  If I really cared that much, I would stop using Facebook.  There is a tradeoff.  A more open society is by definition a society with fewer barriers to the accessibility of information.  We all have a choice:  join Facebook and voluntarily sacrifice some of the privacy we feel we have for the opportunity to use the service, or not join Facebook and feel secure knowing that, as the UMBC video kids, “nobody will know our top five movies, no matter how much they want to.”  Nobody is forcing us to use Facebook.  Nobody is forcing us to use the Internet.  Nobody is forcing us to give particular information to particular parties (indeed, in order to join Facebook, one only needs to give an e-mail address, and if your email address is private, it probably doesn’t do much good for you).  When you join Facebook, you enter into what Rousseau would properly term a “social networking contract”:  Just as men sacrifice natural freedom for the protection of government, we now sacrifice a degree of privacy for the opportunity to make connections and play FarmVille.

I don’t mean to ridicule those who would prefer to keep their information private; there is nothing inherently wrong with this position.  All that I’m saying is that these services exist only by choice:  love it or leave it.  If you want to join Facebook, great.  If you don’t, that’s fine as well.  But it’s erroneous to claim any sort of malevolence on the part of Facebook or any other social networking website, as they clearly don’t extract any information without our consent.  If you’d prefer that Mark Zuckerberg not know your favorite quotes of all time, then Facebook probably isn’t for you.  But if you don’t mind him seeing your pictures from Holiday Ball in exchange for the chance to join a community of over 600 million, welcome aboard!  You’ll find that the Internet can be a very friendly place.

 

One obvious caveat, which may or may not be mentioned above:  the arrogation to individuals of responsibility for the security of their personal information does not apply in cases where a company affirmatively lies to its users.  The “social networking contract” can only operate on the basis of fully informed consent (I realize that there is substantial difference in opinion on the subject of whether privacy policies adequately facilitate informed consent).

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