Could Facebook be a members only social club?

What is public space? Ok, so it’s important but what is it and how is it defined? The reason I have begun thinking about this again is an attempt to address a question of what government authorities should be allowed to do with publicly available data on social networks such as Facebook.

One of the issues with public space is the way in which we have taken it’s legal status for granted and tend to believe that it will be there when we need it. This is despite the fact that very many of the spaces we see as public are actually private (e.g. shopping malls) and many spaces which were previously public have been privatized.

So why worry about a private public space? Who cares who is responsible for it? The privatization of public space allows for the creation of many local rules which can actually limit our general freedoms. There is, for example, no law against photographing in public. But if the public space is in reality a private space there is nothing stopping the owners from creating a rule against photography. There are unfortunately several examples of this – only last month the company that owns and operates the Glasgow underground prohibited photography.

Another limitation brought about by the privatization of public spaces is the limiting of places where citizens can protest. The occupy London movement did not chose to camp outside St Paul’s for symbolic reasons but because the area land around the church is part of the last remaining public land in the city.

Over the last 20 years, since the corporation quietly began privatising the City, hundreds of public highways, public pathways and rights of way in place for centuries have been closed. The reason why this is so important is that the removal of public rights of way also signals the removal of the right to political protest. (The Guardian)

This is all very interesting but what has it got to do with Facebook?

In Sweden a wide range of authorities from the Tax department to the police have used Facebook as an investigative tool. I don’t mean that they have requested data from Facebook but they have used it by browsing the open profiles and data available on the site. For example the police may go to Facebook to find a photograph, social services may check up if people are working when they are claiming unemployment etc.

What makes this process problematic is that the authorities dipping into the Facebook data stream is not controlled in any manner. If a police officer would like to check the police database for information about me, she must provide good reason to do so. But looking me up on Facebook – in the line of duty – has no such checks.

These actions are commonly legitimized by stating that Facebook is a public space. But is it? Actually it’s a highly regulated private public space. But how should it be viewed? How should authorities be allowed to use the social network data of others? In an article I am writing right now I criticize the view that Facebook is public, and therefore accessible to authorities without limitation. Sure, it’s not a private space, but what about a middle ground – could Facebook be a members only social club? Would this require authorities to respect our privacy online?

They that do – rule! The actocracy as a form of governance

There is obviously no perfect form of power-system. At present we praise democracy as the ultimate form of government. The main reason for this is that we have moved from power in a small group (autocracy) to people rule (democracy). But is democracy really the ultimate form of group control? Obviously not. In many hierarchical organizations democracy is directly scorned. Simple examples are the military is an autocratic hierarchy and in operating theaters are dictatorships where the surgeon rules supreme.

Working in voluntary net-based organizations democracy is often seen as a viable alternative. Each member has the ability to discuss and participate. However in many of these groups it is increasingly difficult to gather “the people” and it can even be difficult to ascertain who the legitimate participants are. Even when all the right people are available online the medium itself often leads to endless mailing list discussions which, while promoting open debate can often prevent actual action.

Often in such groups the is an interesting practice which may be defined as an Actocracy. In an actocracy the person prepared to do the work actually steers the movement. In this situation work may be carried out. Naturally an actocracy is not necessarily fair in the democratic sense but as with other forms of government their are checks and balances.

Government requests to Google

Google has developed a very nice tool to illustrate requests from government agencies to remove content from their services, or provide information about users of our services and products.

Like other technology and communications companies, we regularly receive requests from government agencies around the world to remove content from our services, or provide information about users of our services and products. The map shows the number of requests that we received between July 1, 2009 and December 31, 2009, with certain limitations.

The information is not a perfect of what is happening (see the FAQ for more information) but is a great way of illustrating this issue and provide a starting point for discussion.

Trusting the professionals

Here is another examples why trusting professionals to actually know what they are doing is scary. It concerns the 700 billion dolllars needed to survive the bank crisis. The number is repeated with absolut confidence and the decision is being reviewed before a final decision is taken. But who sat down and worked out that they actually needed 700 000 000 000 dollars?

Here is a quote from Forbes Magazine:

In fact, some of the most basic details, including the $700 billion figure Treasury would use to buy up bad debt, are fuzzy.

“It’s not based on any particular data point,” a Treasury spokeswoman told Tuesday. “We just wanted to choose a really large number.”

“We just wanted to choose a really large number” – seriously this is an early April fools joke? It must be. This cannot be the way in which trained professionals resolve a crisis? If it is then either we need to fire the professionals and hire some real professionals, or maybe just replace them with monkeys? To rephrase the old adage: Give enough monkeys enough money they will eventually resolve the crisis.

The illusion of order and control is vital to a government. It is for the most part based upon a reality and not an illusion but in this case, maybe not.

(via Neatorama)

Universities pimp out students

Information and news tends to come from many strange source but I was really surprised to find a nasty piece of news in the Göteborg Uni student newspaper. To put it bluntly Göteborg University has made a series of larger or smaller errors. Some just bad ideas while others really bad ideas.

In order to ensure that all students can be reached and to be able to take full advantage of information technology someone decided to provide all students with “official” emails ending with – on the face of it this may seem like a good idea but I really have no idea why. It would have been better to allow/demand/require all students to register an email address but I don’t want to get into that part right now.

The second mistake was to decide to manage the email system themselves. Which resulted in a couple of years of mismanagement, a lot of frustration and a final collapse of the whole system. Ok, so I am exaggerating it was not a collapse but basically the university admitted defeat – and it is here where the local student newspaper comes in – and have handed the administration of the email to Google.

Now this is a development which has been happening without much fuss all over the world Trinity College Dublin, Arizona State University and Linköping University (another Swede) but it kind of hits me square in the nuts when my home university adopts the scheme.

So why does it bother me that Google has taken over student email at Göteborg Uni? Why does it seem that I am the only one who is bothered by what is supposed to be a comforting fact that the students will still have as their mail?

What really bugs me is that the university has basically sold its students. Not only that, but the university is a public authority and as such should not be promoting a private company in this way. The University of Gothenburg has approximatly 50,000 students (25 000 full-time students) and 5,000 employees.  This public authority is then used to demand of it’s 50 000 clients that they must become reliant on a private company.

As if this wasn’t enough the recent Swedish FRA law allows surveillance of all communications that pass through Sweden. Since Google’s servers are outside Sweden this means that all the students email will be under surveillance.

This is wrong in so many ways but nobody seems to be reacting to the fact that univesities are pimping out their students for the sake of technical simplicity – when this is not necessary!