This nonsense with Facebook is getting rather annoying. Admittedly, Facebook did screw up, in multiple ways. But the way the public and the Congress is handling this mess is just absurd. It shows how little people understand the flow of information, privacy, and consumer protection.
Information, once made public, is public information now and forever. Yes, Facebook can delete your profile information. The system lets you delete that information whenever you want. You can also download the entirety of your data so that it can, potentially, be used on another platform. However, once you share something, anyone who sees it (anyone you let see it) can share it to. That really isn’t surprising. Is it? If I tell someone a secret, can I delete that secret? No. If they go and tell someone else, now the secret is out there. Hell, let’s say I could do something really absurd, like delete every form of media relating to Star Wars, including every picture, action figure, cartoon, etc. Would Star Wars be gone? No. Think of how many people will still remember Star Wars, still talk about it, and maybe even work on recreating it. Would it be a perfect recreation? Probably not. But it would be pretty damn close. That is just how ideas work. They spread. And indeed, the free exchange of ideas is protected by the constitution.
The sticky issue of information persistence in a community leads to another point. I have wanted to write a full article on the topic for a while, but every time I sit down to write it, I get distracted. But this article is a good place to address certain aspects of privacy. Privacy is a fairly new concept. In the past, most of the people in a community knew close to everything about everyone else. Communal living has not been uncommon throughout history. In a lot of places, especially lower income countries, the bulk of the family will live in one room. Public bathing, due to the cost of having clean water, was not uncommon in many cultures. Bath houses are still not uncommon in some areas of the world, including Japan. In ancient Rome, there were toilets that were arranged in a single room. People would quite literally do their business in a communal room, while having discussions with one another. THE Journal has an interesting article on the topic, but there’s also a picture to get an idea of how it worked. Only thanks to the recent advancements in technology and consumerism have we created a lifestyle which offers a great deal of privacy.
Yet in the case of Facebook, which is a social media platform, we expect privacy, even when we made our information public. We are quite literally posting our shit on a “wall” where anyone we let see it can see it and share it, and then we are shocked that the information spreads or that people comment on it? This mentality is why I wrote Facebook: Antisocial Media. People expect to be able to post whatever they want, and yet also be completely immune to criticism and feel totally private.
While the view of privacy in the modern world is somewhat absurd, it is possible that certain expectations were created by Facebook, and certain contractual obligations were not met. It is true that in the past, there was some indication that third party apps could not access your data, unless you let them do so. But they would skim data from friends, even if that friend did not share your data. I don’t know all the details. It may have just been that the apps were able to see the posts that the friend did share, in which case we are back to the first point about information spreading, as people share it.
The real breach of contract was by those who used the collected data and shared them with third parties, when they specifically agreed not to do so. While information is protected by the first amendment, and the right to freely exchange information cannot be abridged, there are penalties for agreeing to keep information private, and then sharing it anyway, especially if doing so created a financial advantage for the party doing the sharing. Facebook could have also done more to inform and also to keep their customers honest. They assumed too quickly that the problem had been solved. This assumption could end up constituting gross negligence.
Who are Facebook’s consumers? Here’s a hint. It’s not the every day user. It is the advertiser. It is the advertisers who pay for a service. It is the advertiser that engages in an economic transaction with Facebook. Users are free to use the platform, without payment, without doing anything, except following a few rules. The user is not required to give anything to Facebook in order to use the platform. Title 15 of the United States Code states the rules of commerce and trade. Under chapter 50, section 2301, consumer is defined in the following way.
The term “consumer” means a buyer (other than for purposes of resale) of any consumer product, any person to whom such product is transferred during the duration of an implied or written warranty (or service contract) applicable to the product, and any other person who is entitled by the terms of such warranty (or service contract) or under applicable State law to enforce against the warrantor (or service contractor) the obligations of the warranty (or service contract).
By legal definition, the advertiser is a consumer. The every day user is not. Facebook’s primary obligation is to their shareholders, but they do have a secondary obligation to protect the consumer. The government supposedly seeks to protect the consumer as well. Why are you allowed to give away cookies, without having a food license, but selling them requires one? The answer is because selling them makes the buyer a consumer, and therefore the activity falls under consumer protection. Now, I can’t bake poisonous cookies, and the government can go after me, if I intentionally give away poisoned cookies. But that is not consumer protection. That is going after intentional malicious activity, which is very different from regulating Facebook in order to ensure that the user is happy.
In fact, the comments by the congress-critters and their desire to regulate the advertising aspect of Facebook actually seeks to limit how Facebook can serve its actual consumers. It hurts their consumers. That is not consumer protection. That is consumer abuse. I myself advertise on Facebook and other social media platforms. I am a consumer. And I do see congress seeking to threaten my ability to use Facebook’s service. If congress truly wishes to protect the consumer, it would not attempt to do what it has threatened to do. And while the concerns of the users are important, the concerns of the paying consumers, the consumers, must take priority.