Don’t (just) #deletefacebook

There has been an increase in public consciousness of on-line privacy and security recently. Revelations about misuse of Facebook data by Cambridge Analytica in both the UK Brexit referendum and US presidential elections lead to a few weeks of calls for us all to #deletefacebook. Although some of the heat has inevitably died from that particular campaign it has become fashionable to talk about on-line privacy - this is no bad thing.

While deleting ones Facebook account would on the face of it seem a good response, I’m concerned that we’re being spun a narrative that Facebook are the bad guys and stopping using the platform will solve all our problems. There are clearly many organisations who stand to gain from a mass, unthinking, migration away from Facebook. Those same organisations would seek to have the attention focus on one platform, rather than us think carefully about what we want from our relationship with technology.

I’m not a big Facebook user but I have friends who are, which makes me a target by proxy of the kinds of concerning activities Facebook (and others) engage in. So here are my slightly rambling thoughts on the subject. It’s important to realise this is just me thinking out loud. One of the great things about the internet is that it’s open, we can all use it in what ever way suits our individual needs (more on that later).

To be reductive and binary about it - Facebook clearly are one of the bad guys. But so are others. We have walked into a communications structure that relies on closed, un-federated platforms who’s interests are poorly aligned with their users. We use these platforms through compulsion, not choice. They treat our friends, and the content we create, as latent sources to be optimised for malicious attention marketing.

What’s more the drive to sharing, liking, commenting and clicking has killed content distribution and original thought. Rather than create something new we re-tweet or we like and share. We’re sold nebulous ideas of network, community and connections (which are no such things). In reality these corporate ideals have replaced real communication, stifled proper debate and killed creation.

The platform giants have created a start-up culture of acquisition at all costs. Any challenger or spark of competitive innovation is quickly acquired and subsumed. This is seen in the start-up ecosystem as a Good Thing. Selling your early stage startup to Google is a holy grail. In this environment monoculture reigns, to the detriment of all of us.

We should not be at all surprised by the Cambridge Analytica revelations. Facebook evolved from a platform for college students (mostly men) to cynically and abusively rate the attractiveness of their (mostly female) colleagues. Action was threatened, but never taken, against that pre-facebook platform for breach of security, violating copyrights, and violating individual privacy. We should not be surprised it’s ended here. Facebook is the ultimate expression of capitalism.

So what should we do? We should be rethinking and re-enginering our relationship with all these platforms. Deleting your Facebook account is not the answer. Better we should consider what’s important to us and what we want the internet to be, then use the technology we already have in those ways.

What I want the Internet to be is largely what it’s always been. In the 1990’s we were excited and inspired by the emerging power of the internet. The idea that all of a sudden anyone could create content and stand shoulder to shoulder with publishing giants was a powerful one. You didn’t need to own a newspaper to have a voice.

Content was largely published and owned by the people who created it. Most communication was decentralised (or at least federated) by it’s very nature, we used email or IRC and hosted our own sites. To find content we either surfed from one site to the next, creating a natural web of trust, or we had a choice of various search engines or directories.

We didn’t worry too much about how our content might be misused, because in the main we owned it. Discussion and debate was not owned by any one company.

None of these things have gone. The internet of the 1990s is still there, in all it glory. Just because platforms like Facebook and Google, that sit on top of the old network, have become de-facto doesn’t mean the old ways of doing things on-line have gone.

It is still the case that anyone can still just host a website. There’s a lot of talk about decentralisation of the internet, the internet is already decentralised. We’re looking for ideals that already exist. We can take back control any time we choose by just not using services we don’t like.

Now I don’t underestimate that, amongst my many significant privileges, are the fact that I have good access to technology and I have the technical education to allow me to create and publish my own content (in sites such as this). However learning the required skills is not all that hard. To some extent we’ve bought into the story that the internet of the 1990s was for ‘geeks’ and only large corporates could make it accessible to everyone. Rather than invest in education or finding creative ways to make publishing more accessible we just let the likes of Facebook take over.

Here’s what I want the Internet to be:

1. Not dependant on any one organisation

Monocultures are bad, we should have our choice of services which should be interoperable with one another. We know this can work, email is a good example. Despite Google’s best efforts with GMail we retain our choice of email provider which are interoperable with all others. However I can’t, for instance, follow a friend’s Twitter account from my Facebook.

Many protocols exist to replace our dependency on big platforms. Imagine, for instance, a future where instead of posting to Facebook everyone ran their own simple sites (like this one), and we got our ‘news feed’ through RSS [1].

2. Able to give me ownership of content I create

When I publish something I’ve created I want to be able to licence it to others if I chose to. It should be me licensing my content, not me publishing my content under some third party platform’s licence. I should get to chose the terms of my licence for my content.

3. Respectful of my privacy

I should be able to freely use the internet with out fear that things I create, content I consume, and my communications with friends will be tracked and followed. I should be able to go online with out worrying about my activity being sold to the highest bidder.

I have a right to privacy in my off line life, it’s reasonable to expect those rights to be respected online.

4. Free from influence by governments or corporate interests

My interests and those of corporates and governments are not (always) aligned. What I see online should not be filtered or censured by those parties. I don’t want my online experience to be artificially bubbled, controlled, or manicured.

As with my expectation of privacy I don’t want data on my interest or politics to be sold and used to attempt to influence my buying, voting, or other power.

[1] RSS is hugely under rated, and due a resurgence. It’s interesting to note that we do in fact all already use RSS - it’s the technology that powers podcast distribution. This is partly a branding issue, we don’t tend to describe successful technologies by the underlying protocols, but more by their utility. We don’t say SMTP, we call it email. We don’t say RSS for audio clips, we say podcast.