You ‘like’, you pay! – Do Social Network Services Users Consciously and Willingly Give Up Their Right for Privacy?

On: October 8, 2011
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About Andrei Florian
I'm a former Bucharest based PR professional with a BA in PR and Communication Science. Currently located in Amsterdam, I am exploring the impact of New Media on the corporate environment at the UvA New Media MA.

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Facebook faces more and more scrutiny over its user privacy issues, but do people willingly trade privacy as a commodity for using Social Network Services (SNSs)? Would they prefer to pay a certain fee in order to prevent surveillance activities and data mining processes, if they had this opportunity?

There have been extensive debates over the new Facebook features announced at the F8 Developers’ Conference last month, especially on how they will affect user privacy. This adds to what is already hot topic both in the academic, and the governmental discourse. Even though there are certain features that can be activated in order to gain a better control over your privacy, as most of tech websites and blogs were quick to announce, we are seeing a real concern and immediate action towards this subject. The Irish data protection commissioner is to conduct a privacy audit of Facebook’s activities outside the US and Canada after privacy complaints from the group Europe versus Facebook.

The complaints revolve around the collection and storage of the personal information of Facebook users, tracking users’ internet use without their knowledge, and using facial recognition technology to tag photographs in violation of user privacy rights. Even if these seem like serious allegations, and even if the need for privacy of SNS users was debated (Danah Boyd, 2008) it is worth considering if users are not just the “perfect victim”, but in fact part of a “social contract”.

Before the conference, Facebook had already brought in a high number of modifications to its product; the general voice heard online after this being one of discontent with the changes. But in this wave of hate it seems that users forget that Facebook is a private venture, free of charge (at first glance) and not a public institution. Facebook profits by selling user data to advertisers, and this is no secret.

„Status update: It is not your Facebook page; it’s Facebook’s. You will be a lot happier if you can remember this.” – Robert Shrimsley, ft.com

As Robert Shrimsley of the Financial Times describes it, we actually began to protest against the changes of a free meal menu, because of our desire to believe that to Facebook we are more than just clients, we tend to interpret Facebook as a democracy.

Alternative Views of Privacy

Even as far back as 2006, with the introduction of the ‘News Feed’, the issues of privacy and exposure were present, with thousands of users in the community vocalizing their discontent and, later, becoming a research topic for prominent authors in this field (Danah Boyd, 2008). In academic efforts privacy is mainly analysed from both sides of the possible exploitation of the personal information – by advertising companies (Fuchs 2011b), or by individuals with bad intentions (e.g. some research proving that using a basic crawling analysis the sexual orientation can be determined) (Jernigan & Mistree, 2009) and Facebook’s privacy controls have been seen as poor at least. Yet, other views on privacy would stress the importance of generating a framework strictly related to the political economy of capitalism, distinguishing privacy for dominant groups VS the privacy at the bottom of the power pyramid for consumers and normal citizens (Fuchs, 2011a).

But could we perhaps presume that another point of view is missing from the privacy paradigm, one that addresses the reciprocal model of trading privacy for certain benefits. The status of the social rewards that the community obtains from the use of SNSs is already a topic with a certain degree of interest in the academic environment.

Hypothesis

Having in mind the starting point that the concept of privacy as trading coin, an interesting question to answer will be if  SNSs users are actually willingly and consciously posting private information, assuming the ‘risks’ that might follow, in order to keep the service free of charge. In other words, to see if users are in fact aware of the value of their ‘free meal’ and if they will be willing to pay for it.
If we were to be inspired by Potts J., Cunningham S., Hartley J., Ormerod P. (2008) then creativity is the subject of creative industries and intellectual property is their product, thus social networks (markets) are used to give value to the product, because otherwise the value itself is not set within the creative industries. This means that for Facebook, in order to survive as a company the intellectual property must be rewarded. To come up with a proposal that replaces the selling of private information to advertisers we can take the example of social micropayment services such as Flattr and propose that there be an added function to the ‘like’ button. The new function would be that the users remunerate Facebook every time they ‘like’, thus providing an income for the existence of the service. Of course this part of the research has to be corroborated with the possibility of users migrating to another more private-focused decentralized SNS (as examples seem to rapidly arise, e.g. Diaspora) in order to see how the network of friends acts as a dependency factor and could influence the decision of quitting Facebook, if such a payment system would be introduced.

Research and further findings

As methods of research, a quantitative survey about the possible introduction of the ‘economic’ function of the ‘like’ button could offer a measure of the intention level of the users to consciously trade their privacy for using Facebook as a free service. It will also give a measure about the intention levels throughout age groups, offering some insights about the level of privacy awareness and relation between young and mature users, but also other demographical filters can be added. The qualitative part of the research can focus on the user-network dependency when choosing to migrate to a new network. In this respect it is also interesting to see if such a method could detect the profile of the trendsetter that can determine the supremacy of a certain SNS over the others.

In the end, the confirmation of such a hypothesis could open up the discussion to such questions as the ethics of the user as a data subject for advertisers, but also if this privacy trading relation is fully acknowledged by all sides, where does that leave the surveillance of employees by employers and of subjects by governments?

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