Facebook and The Privacy of The Least of These

A timely text from a friend yesterday asked if I had read danah boyd’s anti-Facebook rant. I hadn’t. Well, I’d skimmed it. So I went and read it. Thanks, friend.

The privacy conversation has never really interested me. I have no illusions about the possibilities when I share something online. I’m making an informed choice to share something about myself and calculating that the potential negative consequence is worth what I gain from sharing it. I do this with strict personal rules: I don’t share things about other people without their consent. I don’t post pictures of other peoples’ kids.

I’ve always assumed that everyone else does this too.

But Boyd has carefully stated what’s at stake with Facebook’s activity. It’s not really privacy, but informed consent. Facebook  has made it confusing and difficult for its users to control the people (and–more to the point–advertisers) who see what they share. The privacy settings are confusing, and for that reason, users are being coerced into sharing personal data with audiences they never intended.

When it comes to my stuff, I can handle this. But churchy social media types ought to be more concerned with other peoples’ privacy than their own. How concerned are we that scores of teenagers, for example, are having their personal data mined without their consent? Facebook is providing a platform for ill-intentioned audiences to harvest personal information shared by users who, developmentally speaking, are still learning how to navigate complicated privacy legalese.  It’s opportunistic, and it presents real problems for people (like myself) who are otherwise rosy about young people’s social media activity.

The Facebeook defense has been, essentially, that people choose to participate in Facebook, and so they should be willing to accept the consequences. But when that choice is made by people who are developmentally or socially vulnerable to complex and even misleading privacy settings, the integrity of their “choice” has to be questioned.

A teen may accept an invitation to a party as an opportunity to mix with their friends. But if the host of that party invites lots of people the teen doesn’t know, people who are after the teen’s personal information for economic gain; if the host establishes a default “public” setting to the interaction–that just by being there the teen is consenting to sharing everything they do there with with everyone else–and everyone who everyone else chooses to share it with; if the teen can opt-out of that arrangement only by leaving their friends behind at the party or taking valuable party time to fill out forms specifying who’s allowed to see what they’re doing: who would say that the teen had a fair shot at protecting their privacy?

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