Enjoy the film. Then try Facebook's real challenge: restoring your privacy
New technologies allow firms and governments to crawl all over our private lives. They also empower us to fight back
A couple of days after watching The Social Network, the new film about Facebook, I was visiting two senior people at Facebook's headquarters in Palo Alto, just off the Stanford campus. "How did you like the movie?" I asked, knowing that they had bussed the whole company down to see it the day it was released. "I found it rather dry," said one, and "a little slow". "Rather boring," said the other. Do I detect a company line emerging here? Facebook says that a film about Facebook is, er, boring.
1. The Social Network
2. Production year: 2010
4. Runtime: 120 mins
5. Directors: David Fincher
6. Cast: Andrew Garfield, Armie Hammer, Jesse Eisenberg, Joseph Mazzello, Justin Timberlake, Max Minghella, Rashida Jones, Rooney Mara
Well, don't you believe it. The Social Network is a hoot, and definitely worth seeing. Just don't imagine it's a serious film about social networking, the internet, and the possibilities for good and ill they open up. This is an entertainment about Harvard, American lawyers, and being 19. It exaggerates gloriously, hilariously.
Realistic it is not. All these Harvard students keep delivering brilliant one-liners, like so many fledgling Woody Allens. They don't punctuate their sentences with a fumbling "like", let alone "fuck". Yet, as it romps along, the satire does touch on one issue that Facebook raises in real life: our loss of privacy. Early in the film, the fictionalised undergraduate Mark Zuckerberg drunkenly uses his blog to slag off a girlfriend who has just dumped him, and then takes revenge on the whole female race by posting, without their knowledge or consent, photos of Harvard undergraduettes for male students to rate.
That minor infringement of privacy is child's play compared to what we have experienced over the last decade. In the week the film was released, news broke of a terrible incident at Rutgers University. An 18-year-old undergraduate, Tyler Clementi, had been covertly filmed having a sexual encounter with another man. His roommate, whom Clementi had asked to vacate the room for a few hours, had activated his computer's webcam and then streamed the video online, for all to see. Clementi leapt off the
Now obviously this is not a story about, let alone against, Facebook – although I find the offhand agony of that six-word lower-case Facebook farewell strangely haunting. But it is a story about the way in which all the new communication technologies make invasions of privacy so easy.
The people at Facebook protest that their social networking site gives you more control over your privacy than many other corners of this brave new world. They have a point. Compared to the British tabloid journalists who hacked into people's mobile phone messages and then exposed their intimate secrets simply to sell more newspapers, Facebook is a virtuous priest guarding the secrets of the confessional. Yet its own past practices – combined with the way people used it – have contributed to the erosion of privacy, and its present ones still leave something to be desired.
An already stale cliche has it that "the Facebook generation doesn't care about privacy any more". Of course norms change with generations, but what really seems to have happened here is that people threw themselves with enthusiasm into this amazing new experience, and now, a few years on, are sometimes horrified by the consequences. In his new book, The Facebook Effect, David Kirkpatrick reports a 2009 poll of American employers which found that 35% of companies had rejected job applicants because of information they found on social networks. One in three! No one is going to persuade me that "the Facebook generation" is cool with that.
Facebook says its privacy controls are now better, and you can set your own level. It's your choice. This is clearly the right principle, but how about the practice? I just tried setting up a new account from scratch, and I don't think the privacy setup is half as good as it should be. The default settings are almost all for sharing – including an automatic search of your email address book (to find potential Friends) on signing up. It takes quite a time to customise all the many tabs down to a more restrictive setting. It's very easy to miss small-print items such as the "instant personalization" which gives access to "some select partner sites ... as soon as you arrive" – and you have to go to a different page (Applications and Websites) to turn that one off.
Even after I'd unclicked the automatic search of my address book, Facebook instantly came up with a long list of suggested friends and "people you know", many of whom I do know (one of my sons, for instance; how kind of you to introduce us) but some I've never heard of.
The opt-out rather than opt-in bias of these settings has been criticised by a former chief privacy officer of Facebook, no less, now a candidate for attorney general of California. I'd be interested in other people's experiences – do please come on the Comment is free thread to share them.
The larger point here is the erosion of privacy on many fronts over the last decade. This is driven by three great forces. There is the technology itself, which already makes it possible to track a whole life, and follow anyone anywhere, with an instantaneous precision that would have a Stasi general salivating. There is the quest for profit, which leads companies to ever more detailed surveillance of their customers' tastes and habits, the better to customise advertising. And there are governments, which find ways of getting their hands on much of this data, as well as collecting server-loads of their own.
Thus, for example, detailed photographic images of your home are up on Google Earth and
I suppose we could just roll over and accept that this is the way the world is going. "Privacy is dead. Get over it," as Scott McNealy, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems, reportedly once advised. Or we can fight back, to restore some of our lost privacy. We can do this by setting our own standards and sharing them. We can do it by working directly on companies like Facebook, whose ultimate sources of revenue we are. You can use Facebook to shape Facebook.
We can also try to push our governments in at least three ways: to curb their own incursions into our privacy; to regulate overintrusive companies better; and to punish private violations, like the one that drove Tyler Clementi to take his life. The very networking technologies that reduce our privacy can also empower us in the fight back. Unlike the movie, this is genuinely dry, slow and boring stuff; but our future liberties will depend on it.
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs