Facebook and the Politics of Privacy

Protests forced the social networking site to nix a new information-sharing feature. An interview with one student who helped lead the effort.

| Thu Sep. 14, 2006 2:00 AM EDT

When social networking website Facebook changed on September 5 to make it easier for users to keep track of their online friends, the company received a wave of unanticipated protest. Facebook, the web's second most popular social networking site with over 9 million users, added a "news feed" feature that automatically alerted users when their friends made changes to their online profiles. But many users called the new feature an invasion of privacy, saying it promoted stalking.

The controversy highlighted the emerging debate over what sort of privacy people should expect from social networking sites, where users willingly post personal information and photos. "When people belong to social networking sites, they really are putting up news for the world to see," says the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Rebecca Jeschke. "It a little odd on one level to complain that people can see the changes that you made when you changed them so that the world could see them." Nonetheless, Jeschke calls Faceboook's News Feed "a functional change to privacy" because of how it made information so easily accessible. As social networking scholar and blogger Danah Boyd notes, "privacy is an experience that people have, not a state of data....When people feel exposed or invaded, there's a privacy issue."

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Over 700,000 Facebook users agreed, joining a Facebook group called Students Against Facebook News Feed, which doubled as a petition asking the site to change the new feature. One of those users was Igor Hiller, an incoming University of California-Santa Barbara freshman who planned a protest outside Facebook's headquarters. Although the protest was cancelled after Facebook gave users the ability to opt out of the feature, Hiller and other previously anonymous users surfaced as spokespeople for privacy rights on social networking sites. MotherJones.com called him at his parents' home in Palo Alto, CA.

MotherJones.com: What was the motivation behind the protest you planned?

Igor Hiller: Well, it was Tuesday morning, September 5, and I was actually online on Facebook at 12:01 when they rolled out these new features of theirs, called News Feed and Mini-Feed. Essentially, every sort of move that you did on Facebook, whether it be commenting on somebody's picture, or joining or leaving a group, or joining or leaving an event, or any update that you did to your profile, this information would be sent to all of your contacts, alongside a timestamp saying exactly what time you did that, and that also includes relationship status. If perhaps you are now no longer in a relationship, you're single, well, that will be forwarded to all your contacts as well, along with the exact time of your breakup.

MJ.com: So it's a privacy issue?

IH: It is. And not only is it a privacy issue, it made people feel so uncomfortable.

MJ.com: A lot of people are going to say it's strange to complain that a site where many people are posting their interests, age, picture, dorm room numbers, friends, hobbies, blog, and other things is violating their privacy in some way.

IH: Well, one way you can look at that is: Say that my parent's phone number is listed in the yellow pages, and if anyone wants to, they can go and look it up. But who would feel comfortable with, maybe when we move, having that new number forwarded to all of our contacts? Before News Feed, yes, you could see the profile, and you could see the pictures, and you could see the comments, and you could see the relationship status, but the users felt that it was just for people who cared, and who wanted to know. But now, all of this information was thrown down the throats of everyone, and it was very strange.

MJ.com: So what was your role in protesting Facebook's changes?

IH: Well, I saw this group, and I saw it growing exponentially, at a ridiculous rate. I mean, within two days they had more than 600,000 members in this group. And I joined it as well, and I thought that while what they were doing was really good - they were protesting online - but I live within just a few miles of Facebook's headquarters. So I figured, "Let's do a protest right at their headquarters. What better way to get heard?"

MJ.com: But you ended up canceling that protest.

IH: We cancelled it a few days before, because as soon as we started organizing it, and it got media attention, the next morning at around 2:48, Facebook made significant changes to their News Feed and Mini-Feed functions. So now, if you don't want all of your actions to be forwarded to your contacts, well, you can just opt yourself out of News Feed, and then they don't see anything that you're doing.

MJ.com: Why do you think that Facebook made that change so quickly?

IH: I think they were just really afraid of it snowballing, and I think they were just taken aback. You know, our generation isn't really known for protesting. This is more our parents, and now all of a sudden, we were just getting up in arms about this, and they were scared. I mean, they had about 10 percent of their users in this group saying that they didn't like what was going on.

MJ.com: In less than a week, more than 700,000 people joined this group, but commentators have noted that other Facebook groups devoted to more "traditional" political causes haven't attracted nearly as many users. Why?

IH: I think that it was so...relevant, or tangible. I'm not implying that this Facebook privacy issue is more important than, you know, fighting AIDS, or for peace, or anything like that, but when you are fighting for an issue like AIDS or against the war in Iraq, these are sort of intangibles. It's less likely that you've been directly affected by the war in Iraq. Whereas this Facebook thing, every single time you logged on, it reminded you of this thing, News Feed, that you hated. And it directly affected young people's lives every single day when they logged on.

MJ.com: Are there other privacy issues with Facebook, and social networking sites in general? Is that something you're interested in working on?

IH: Well, I mean, I guess it's not perfect. People can still, if they want to, stalk someone. But it's not something that I think I will be protesting I mean, to have it be perfect. How perfect can a site be for protecting people's privacy? I mean, you're posting information online. Already you're opening yourself up. [Laughs].

MJ.com: As a result of this whole issue, have you changed any of the settings on your own Facebook profile?

IH: I've certainly opted myself out of News Feed. That's the first thing I did as soon as they made the changes. But I've kept most of the others because I like how it is - I want people at Santa Barbara to be able to see my profile because it's about making new friends and it's about social networking. And so I think that's a good idea. I don't think that the students of Santa Barbara will be stalking me. But if I do ever feel uncomfortable with it, I can opt myself out.

MJ.com: In your opinion, what would a social networking site need to do to protect users' privacy?

IH: Well, first, it needs to listen to them, and that's something that Facebook learned quite quickly. It needs to listen to what they're comfortable with and what they're uncomfortable with. I think it needs to make sure that the information that people post on its site is seen by the people that the users want to see it. If that's not happening, I think that's when people start getting up in arms.

MJ.com: So, what's next for you in terms of working on privacy issues?

IH: I'll be watching in the next few weeks to see what Facebook does with opening themselves up to the public. [Note: This week, Facebook confirmed that it will soon allow anyone to join the site, not just people with an email ending in .edu, as had previously been its policy.] This definitely will open up new privacy issues. Facebook always prided itself on being this student network, and now it's for everyone. We'll see what sort of privacy issues this opens up.