x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Facebook harvests souls twice as fast as the Grim Reaper

Although I acknowledge the merits of Facebook, its privacy policies have forced me to leave it.

I have walked away from Facebook - closing my account and saying goodbye.

So what happens now? Life goes on. It is true that in leaving the world's most popular social networking site I have given up the easiest means I had of interacting with scores of acquaintances and a smaller number of cherished friends and relatives.

Facebook will not miss me, however. Its membership is growing at an astonishing pace. The service was launched in February 2004 and reports that it has more than 800 million members today. That is about 11.5 per cent of the world's population. In its seven-plus years, Facebook has gathered users at something like twice the rate at which the Grim Reaper has been harvesting souls.

But Facebook's rapid growth should not be a surprise. The service is free, and its interactivity formula has been immensely useful to people around the world.

So why have I abandoned a free service whose usefulness I readily acknowledge? I became uncomfortable with Facebook on privacy grounds.

That's an odd thing for me to say, perhaps, because my life is pretty much an open book. But privacy still matters to me. And where privacy is concerned, Facebook the asset appears to have been eclipsed by Facebook the affliction.

You should understand that Mark Zuckerberg's creation is not your friend. Its purpose is to manufacture money for its creator and his financial partners. Sometimes Facebook's subscribers forget this fact because they do not pay, at least not with money, to use the service. And because they are not paying money for the service, they are inclined to put up with a lot. Mr Zuckerberg is counting on that.

Facebook makes money by selling space on its site to advertisers with the promise that at least a certain number of the site's users will see those clients' advertisements. Mr Zuckerberg can tell his advertisers how many Facebook users are logged on at any moment in various markets, for how long they tend to remain logged on and what they do while logged on.

In this connection, Facebook is the subject of a lawsuit filed in federal court in California, where the company is based. A group with one Perrin Davis as the lead plaintiff has asked the court to certify the case as a class action, meaning that the one legal action could represent all Facebook users in the US and could therefore be extraordinarily expensive for Facebook if it is found guilty. But guilty of what, exactly?

Mr Davis et al accuse the networking site of violating users' privacy by tracking their online activities after they have logged off the site - using cookies planted on their computers to report their online movements back to the mother ship, as it were. Facebook acknowledges that tracking has been going on but says it has all been perfectly innocent. I don't believe a word of it, but the court will decide.

I believe Facebook has been cavalier with the privacy of its subscribers because the service is free of charge. In my view, Facebook has long played a clever game with certain account and privacy controls, burying them in the dark corners of the website and generally configuring default settings to suit its larger purpose.

Now the company is going further. In the September 29 New York Times, the technology writer Somini Sengupta reported: "At its annual conference last week, Facebook announced a number of partnerships with media companies, including the music streaming service Spotify, the video-streaming service Hulu, Yahoo News and The Washington Post.

"Some services ask users if they wish to share, but others assume that their users want to share. As a result, the music they listen to, the news they read or the books they recommend are visible to their Facebook 'friends' on a new feature called Ticker. That information could also be made available to marketing companies for use in focusing advertisements, and potentially to government agencies interested in tracking people's behaviour."

There you have it. One of my co-workers who still uses Facebook, and generally likes it, describes it nonetheless as "a very subtle poison". My view is that Mr Zuckerberg's creature is mutating ominously, and so I have said: "Get thee behind me, Facebook." And I feel just fine.

 

gdunkley@thenational.ae