Is user education a red herring?

The BBC podcast of The Media Show with Steve Hewlett is always interesting to listen to. The latest show I listened to (episode 28 September 2011) contained a segment on the recent changes to Facebook and what these may mean for privacy. Hewlett interviewed Facebook’s Christian Hernandez and attempted to get him to see the privacy effects of the new changes.

Basically the new changes will mean that your friends will see what you are doing online – unless you opt out of showing those specific pages. In other words Facebook will happily announce to your “friends” that you have been looking at pages on weight loss (or whatever) and naturally let them draw their own conclusions from what they see of what I saw.

Hernandez was quick to stress the elements of user control over his/her information. If you chose you may opt-out of showing friends the specific pages you are viewing right now. Additionally if you forget you can remove the pages after the fact.

My problem with the former is that I need to be aware that my Facebook friends will always be looking over my shoulder. I am easily going to forget this. As for the latter – well once my friends know what I have looked at, removing the links/pages/information is not effective… I have already outed myself.

When pressed for a reasoning to why the privacy encroaching changes were made Hernandez talked about Zuckerbergs vision of a social net. When pressed further he returned back to the concept of user control. Eventually he did accept that these changes will require user education.

In other words we, the users, need to learn new proactive, protective forms of behavior. The platform owner has washed their hands – its our problem that they have given us the gift of freedom and control. Wonderful terms like freedom and control become red herrings in the world of data harvesting.

But if we are in danger from social media shouldn’t we be able to expect that the state will somehow regulate to protect us from our own behavior. They did so in areas such as smoking, seat-belts and motorcycle helmets… Sure there is a lot of interest in attempting to update privacy regulation from the pre-social media age – but its tricky. Also not everyone is in favor of regulation.

An example of this is Jeff Jarvis’ recent book Private Parts – Gordon Crovitz reviewed it in the Wall Street Journal

“Congress is considering several privacy bills. But Mr. Jarvis calls it a ‘dire mistake to regulate and limit this new technology before we even know what it can do.’

“Privacy is notoriously difficult to define legally. Mr. Jarvis says we should think about privacy as a matter of ethics instead. We should respect what others intend to keep private, but publicness reflects the choices ‘made by the creator of one’s own information.’ The balance between privacy and publicness will differ from person to person in ways that laws applying to all can’t capture.”

Jarvis is right that it is complex to regulate what we do not fully understand but this means that in the meantime we are losing our integrity rights every time the platform owners make changes – nominally to increase our freedom and control – but in reality to increase their control and profits. Lets never forget what MetaFilter user blue_beetle wrote “if you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold”.

Profiteers may act to protect access to raw material – not the rights of raw material.

 

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