Friday, October 14, 2011

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

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,

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.


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?


Monday, October 10, 2011

PhoneGuard. Keeping Parents and Beliebers Happy

Designed with the noble purpose of preventing deadly traffic accidents caused by the distraction of texting while driving, the Phone Guard – Drive Safe application is in fact one new media watchtower for parents and employers to servile teenagers and employees.

This summer, Justin Bieber set out to be the saviour of teenage drivers everywhere by endorsing together with the Remember Alex Brown Foundation the Phone Guard – Drive Safe mobile application as part of a Don’t Text and Drive campaign.


The basic version of the app is available for free on the Phone Guard website, and can be found on the Android Market, App Store, and is also available for Blackberry users. What the app basically does is by using GPS to track speed and coordinates of the phone it automatically disables texting, emailing and keyboard function of the mobile phone when this is in a vehicle moving faster than 15 mph. The users no longer are able to text, email, surf the Web, or instant message and the software sends an automatic response to incoming texts or calls. When the car is stopped for more than 20 seconds, the phone unlocks.

The app is not a very popular on the App Market, users saying that it isn’t easy to use and that it drains the battery very fast. But these technical problems can always be improved, and in fact the real interesting part comes when purchasing the full version of the Phone Guard app.

I stumble upon the application on a CNET forum thread where parents were searching for apps that allow them to servile their teens’ activity. That is because the full version of the app allows parents/employers to put a password protected agent on the kids/employees phone that sends info back to them on the phone’s location via Google Maps.


Also, if the child or employee is a passenger in a moving vehicle, they can press a specified button to request permission from parent or employer to use the text function. Permission can be granted or denied from the parent’s or employer’s cell phone. The software also features Phone TimeOut, which allows parents or employers to specify the time of day texting should be disabled, GeoFencing, which will allow the phone's administrator to select geographic boundaries and receive a text message if the phone strays outside of the boundaries and SpeedAlert, which sends an email if the driver goes over a certain speed that the admin sets.

All in all, under the mask of saving lives, the app proves to be a powerful surveillance tool, close oddly enough to the ankle tracing devices. It puts the user under surveillance in the context of such traditional Foucaultian institutions as the family or the workplace making him internalize the power relation. The visualization process is now being carried out by new media applications as extensions of the surveyors’ senses in a Panopticon freed of enclosed spaces.

It is maybe appropriate here to recall J. Macgregor Wise’s mobile phone example of Deleuze’s assemblage in order to claim that such apps are part of the new mechanisms of control that substitute the disciplinary sites of enclosure. With the empowering possibilities given to the administrator to track and set the boarders of speed and space, such control mechanisms take the form of modulations and maybe enable us to see what Deleuze was claiming to be the replacement of disciplinary societies by societies of control. Even the title of the press release issued to announce the launch of the application implies the free-floating forms of control: ‘PhoneGuard Takes Control of Texting & Driving: Software Disables Texting and Safeguards Would-be Distracted Drivers’.

But another interesting thing to notice is the almost deceptive way in which the proprietors of the means of control used teen-idols in order to spread their surveillance mechanisms. As the comments on the campaign’s Youtube videos show, the legion of Beliebers downloaded and installed the app without filtering the repercussions of their accts.


So it is maybe interesting to pose the question of what new media subversive techniques do the subjects of surveillance have in order to defend themselves, or in Deleuze’s words:

„There is no need to ask which is the toughest or the most tolerable regime, for it's within each of them that liberating and enslaving forces confront one another. [...]There is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.”