Privacy advocates have been busy this past week.
Facebook’s announced changes, including the Facebook “Timeline” and Amazon’s Silk browser, which is slated to be offered on its new Kindle Fire when it’s released in November, have raised a number of privacy concerns. The objections raise the question of whether we can continue to innovate digitally without releasing more of our personal information. Should the Web be an inherently private or public place — or should we refrain from entering further into the cloud until each of us is guaranteed a padlock for our personal information? (Full disclosure: The Washington Post Co.’s chairman and chief executive, Donald E. Graham, is a member of Facebook’s board of directors.)
The Web is a vast repository of information about users and non-users alike, and that data, part of the pool of “big data” that many technologists hope to harness in order to develop the next generation of tools and toys, is incredibly valuable. Everyone, from advertisers to educators to hackers to curious observers, wants access to this data and — better yet — access to tools that can easily and efficiently process, sort it and put it to good use. After all, an understanding of human behavior is essential if you are going to develop the next, great tool that people could not imagine life without.
When Amazon announced its new Kindle Fire tablet, it also announced that it would come with a new browser called Silk. The company promised faster browsing speeds and a more seamless Web experience — music to the ears of mobile users who struggle with slow download speeds on overburdened data networks. But privacy advocates called foul almost immediately. According to security firm Sophos, as reported by Mobiledia on Thursday, Silk stores the Web sites that users visit as well as their IP and Mac addresses. Amazon’s privacy statement says that the company “generally” keeps the data for no longer than 30 days. It could be argued that, if users did not want their browsing data stored, they could refrain from buying the Fire or any other product that uses the browser — but what would that mean for companies’ ability to provide users with new types of technology?
Unlike Amazon’s Silk browser, which is still not on the market, Facebook’s updates stand to affect millions of existing users. Eleven privacy groups sent a joint letter to the Federal Trade Commission, asking it to investigate Facebook’s data use. The call for an investigation comes after Facebook announced that it would allow third-party applications to post to users’ timelines automatically. So, if you use Spotify, for example, and you agree once to allow Spotify to post the songs you listen to on your Facebook timeline, it will do so without notifying you before posting each, individual song. As with Silk, users can choose to leave Facebook. A boycott has been launched before, albeit unsuccessfully. But can Facebook continue to move forward if barriers to users’ data aren’t progressively removed?
In an op-ed piece for ReadWrite Enterprise, Joe Brockmeier calls on users to “stop feeding Facebook.” But Brockmeier doesn’t call for users to abandon the platform, merely cut back:
The answer is to moderate our use of and dependence on Facebook. Like moderating diet, drink, television consumption or any other pleasurable but ultimately damaging-if-done-in-excess activity it is up to individuals. If we cannot do this, the fault lies only with us.
Author and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff argues that, rather than Facebook’s customers, users are the product:
Facebook’s real customers are the companies who actually pay them for this data, and for access to our eyeballs in the form of advertisements. The hours Facebook users put into their profiles and lists and updates is the labor that Facebook then sells to the market researchers and advertisers it serves.
Given this, how long before companies start paying users for their data? We’ll probably be waiting for quite some time, since we actively choose to use the services provided by Amazon and Facebook. But, if Facebook and Amazon, among a variety of other companies, continue to call for access to more of users’ data in order to innovate, will we consider the cost worth the new features?
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