[Air-l] Facebook protests

mark andrejevic mark-andrejevic at uiowa.edu
Thu Sep 7 08:13:13 PDT 2006

One of the interesting consequences of the news feed is that users 
can now see how many of their friends have joined the protest against 
it. It's helping to snowball the backlash it has generated.

In any case, it will be interesting to see how quickly users 
habituate themselves to this change, assuming facebook stands its 
ground. Remember the initial reaction to the gmail advertising scheme 
(scan messages to customize ad content)? As I recall Google backed 
off this briefly, but not for long -- and now people seem to hardly 

As for the status of privacy expectations -- I was a journalist back 
when database reporting was going mainstream. We were fascinated by 
how easy it was (at the time) to go to whichever government agency 
caught our  attention and ask them to dump all their public record 
data onto disks which we could then sort through using spreadsheet 
and database programs. In theory all of these records had long been 
public; in practice going through them looking for correlations would 
have been prohibitively time consuming and labor intensive without 
digital files.

There is an important difference between theory and practice in cases 
like this -- and people are generally smart enough, I think, to 
understand that difference. Yes, in theory, all the information that 
one posted about oneself on Facebook could be meticulously sorted 
through, time stamped, and archived by someone paying VERY close 
attention to your page -- and the pages of scores of other "friends." 
In practice, doing this would be prohibitively time consuming and 
labor intensive. Facebook has just closed the gap between theory (all 
information is publicly available) and reality (actually gathering 
all this info would require monitoring everyone's facebook page 24 
hours a day) -- and it seems important not to overlook the fact that 
this does represent a significant change (to insist that it doesn't 
is to insist that people don't understand the difference between 
theory and practice (because ideally, perhaps, there shouldn't be 
one) -- a pathology that seems endemic to the academy).

Having said that, there's something interesting about those moments 
when we're forced to face the fact that the privacy we act like we 
think we have is (even in practice) becoming increasingly illusory. 
I'd speculate that many people still treat search engines as if the 
information they enter is private. AOL and the New York Times (among 
other outlets) recently drove home the point that it is only private 
in the sense that it has become the property of the search engines 
themselves (who can, at will, disclose it publicly, or to state 

Finally, as to expectations of privacy -- although there is no 
constitutional right to privacy, there are certainly elements of 
privacy built into the constitution (fourth amendment) and more than 
a century's worth of reliance on the notion of a common law privacy 
right. The right to privacy plays an important role in key judicial 
decisions with very important consequences. We do have a Privacy Act, 
after all, and the president is supposed to get permission before 
wiretapping us. I don't think the common sense version of privacy was 
derived entirely from thin air.  I'm plenty willing to critique the 
notion of privacy, but let's not cave too quickly -- we might be 
providing a bit too much assistance to those only too willing to 

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