I was invited to walk through a forest near my home in rural, Eastern Kentucky, by a group of logging company executives and environmentalists. As we passed beneath a lush canopy of chestnut oaks and beech, the small talk told the story: The company executives mused over the number of boards and feet that could be cleaved from the landscape, the environmentalists over its biological diversity and vibrant ecosystem. Same forest, radically different viewpoints and agendas.
I was reminded of this stroll last week, as I watched advertisers and public media advocates lock horns over an upcoming report in the June issue of Consumer Reports— “Protect Your Privacy"—that tells how 13 million U.S. Facebook users don’t use privacy controls. It was certainly an apt topic. The world has more Facebook accounts than it has cars, and the digital superpower is the most visited site on the Internet, not to mention a financial behemoth. Facebook recently set an IPO price range that values the company at up to $96 billion. But as the report pointed out, Facebook gives us more than the power of the "Like button" and a story of furious and exponential financial growth, it gives us the opportunity to become exquisitely vulnerable with our lives.
Tucked away in a New York University conference room in Lower Manhattan, the two groups sat on a small raised stage with a podium between them. The room was packed. Interestingly and perhaps somewhat creepily, in the second to the front row was a Facebook employee, Facebook declined to be on the panel, but had nevertheless taken the train in from Washington, D.C. He sat through the presentation straightbacked and silent.
Craig Newmark of Craigslist warmed up the crowd with a power point presentation."I try to think of myself as the Lady Gaga of nerds." he started out, but then quickly grew serious: “Do you trust the practices of online communities?" he wanted to know. Newmark argued that "trust is the new black." Corporations are contouring the internet in ways that will demand people share more and more personal information. In order to resist, Newmark suggested that, among other things, users take up lobbying.The Internet is burning, Newmak explained, “maybe we need a volunteer fire department.”
Consumer Reports study found that the majority of U.S. Facebook users who are concerned about privacy use the sites privacy settings to defend against unwanted intersocial incursions, but points out that such protections don't go far enough. Congress needs to pass a national privacy law that would shield consumers from being tracked online.
But from the perspective of the advertisers on hand, such regulation would hurt the economy and enfantilize citizens. Anne Collier of NetFamilyNews.Org argued in blog response to the report that pushing for new laws as solution “perpetuates a false dependency at a time when laws are less and less of a solution.” And young people, the advertising folks pointed out, are “less concerned by privacy. Public media advocates pushed back that it's a myth that young people don't care about privacy. One college student certainly did, she asked the panel a pretty pointed question that, in an economy of growing disparities and swelling student loan debts, momentarily hushed the room: “How long until collection companies start using social media to stalk us? “ The student had injected the micromechanics of everyday life into a largely theoretical discussion, reminding the audience that the Internet was actually made up of people.
"Privacy goes beyond our protection as consumers into our functionality as citizens" Alfredo Lopez of May First/People remarked later.“Its the people that give the Internet its power!”
The full Consumer Reports Facebook report can be found online at consumerreports.org.
Nick Szuberla is a media artist working to connect the arts, policy, and technology and founder of Working Narratives, who is currently leading the Prison Phone Justice campaign.