The Problem With Micronetworks

11 10 2010

As mentioned in this post on GeekWithLaptop, Facebook has introduced the concept of creating groups of online “friends.” These groups can range as something as small and intimate as college suitemates or an extended family, or something as large and diverse as the North America Man Boy Love Association (mentioned by Lora Bentley on her IT Business Edge blog as a prank pulled on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg by TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington).

The prank highlights the idea that is so discomforting about the Facebook Group platform: that anyone can be invited and included in a group sans permission. Before this gets misconstrued, this is partially true. While a user can invite or be invited into

 

TechCruch's Michael Arrington used the privacy loophole in the NAMBLA Facebook Group to add Mark Zuckerberg as a member.

 

a group by someone else, should the invitee leave that group, the inviter is unable to automatically add that person again without expressing a manual invitation. Even so, for a user to be included into a group without expressed consent is one of Facebook’s fundamental problems regarding user privacy.

Fast Company expert blogger Brian Solis notes in his post about Facebook Groups that “privacy is now a process of boundary management. It is in our control to define how much other people know about us, what they see, and the impressions they form.” Solis is absolutely right. However, a large part of Facebook users might not be in the same mindset. As a longtime Facebook user, I know for a fact how easy it is to invade a person’s privacy simply because they erred in managing privacy settings, such as friend lists and tagged photographs.

The idea of these micronetworks only makes this lack of privacy less secure; in unwittingly being included in Groups, potentially infinite people have access to any and all information not explicitly made unavailable in Facebook’s navigational gauntlet of privacy settings. Photographs from the weekend, unflattering status updates, it’s all accessible to family, employers, coworkers, etc.

In a world where Facebook is becoming exponentially more influential and omnipresent (it’s even on your TV’s!), users have a responsibility to themselves to appropriately manage their information output and especially upload (for example, if you have a picture of yourself hugging the toilet after a night out, it’s probably best not to post it).

Or, in the extreme case scenario, you can just opt out of Facebook altogether and close your account. I’m continuing to lean in that direction, it’s just a matter of coming to terms with communicating with people by email and phone again. One day.

For those of you that love corporate propaganda:





The Filter Bubble

11 10 2010

While some first took it as alarming, many of us are now used to Facebook and Amazon providing us with targeted advertisements and product recommendations, based on interests we’ve indicated through web search queries. Now, Google and Yahoo! are doing the same things to our search results, according to an interview with MoveOn.org board president Eli Pariser. MoveOn.org states in its About page that it is a cluster of organizations that “work together to realize the progressive promise of our country. MoveOn is a service — a way for busy but concerned citizens to find their political voice in a system dominated by big money and big media.” One of the goals of Pariser, a renowned Internet activitst, is the passage of net neutrality legislation. He also wants to promote awareness of the problem created by customized search results, an issue he calls “the filter bubble.”

 

MoveOn.org Board President Eli Pariser

 

Pariser describes the filter bubble in his interview with news and entertainment site Salon: “Since Dec. 4, 2009, Google has been personalized for everyone. So when I had two friends this spring Google “BP,” one of them got a set of links that was about investment opportunities in BP. The other one got information about the oil spill. Presumably that was based on the kinds of searches that they had done in the past. If you have Google doing that, and you have Yahoo! doing that, and you have Facebook doing that, and you have all of the top sites on the Web customizing themselves to you, then your information environment starts to look very different from anyone else’s. And that’s what I’m calling the “filter bubble”: that personal ecosystem of information that’s been catered by these algorithms to who they think you are.”

Pariser explains that while these personalized search filters serve a purpose in helping us navigate through the vast amounts of information available online (an issue I delved into in one of last week’s posts), they’ll provide us with a plethora of information on the subject of search query, but nothing else. He says, “There’s a looping going on where if you have an interest, you’re going to learn a lot about that interest. But you’re not going to learn about the very next thing over. And you certainly won’t learn about the opposite view.” This results in a “feedback loop” creating an informationally-restricted environment: the filter bubble.

Pariser suggests a reasonable legal alternative to prevent this from becoming a locked-in part of social media SOP: that web sites become required to have users design their own privacy agreements. Rather than have users “read” pages of legal disclosures then agree to become a site member, Pariser suggests ” a standard format by which customers can have their own policy for how they want their data used.”

Implementing this, along with the success of net neutrality legislation, will prevent the Internet from becoming dominated by a few major media corporations, a disappointing trend of every telecommunication technology of the last century. This, Pariser claims, “is the project of the next couple of years.”

Pariser discusses the filter bubble at the 2010 Personal Democracy Forum:





Should We Let Google Aggregate Our Lives?

3 10 2010

In a September 28th piece by Venture Beat, Google CEO Eric Schmidt made bold claims about the future of Google and its applications in our everyday lives. He believes that modern technology will force us to reconcile with the sheer vast amounts of information we must handle on a daily basis, and that the best way to do so would be through Google products and services. He said, “Computers will clearly handle the things we aren’t good at, and we will handle the things computers clearly aren’t good at.” While that leaves open an immensely gray area of definition, he mentions, “It’s amazing that people drive cars, computers should be the ones driving cars.”

The most recent life “augmentation” Google has implemented is the Instant search feature, which updates results in realtime as the user adjusts his or her search query. This, among other time and energy-saving facets such as Google Alerts, Maps, Shopping, and News are the kind of tweaks that make life just a bit easier (especially for a Chrome user, such as myself).

Still, one grievance I’d like to air is the disappearance of discovery. Google News’ ability to customize users’ content aggregation lets them read exactly what they want, determined by preferences for topics, tags, even sources. This is fantastic when we have about fifteen minutes to catch up on the daily news, and more specifically, what kind of news might be relevant to the user (I myself am partial to New York City local, business, and technology). Still, this eliminates other content we might potentially find interesting; I’ve been prone to wander into the business or arts section of a physical newspaper, but online it’s difficult for me to come across that kind of information unless I specify that I want it.

It doesn’t stop at Google News; Facebook sets up banner advertisements based on user interests, links, and other types of activity. Google has recently come under fire for allowing Android apps share user information with third-party advertisers. While this is not a breach of contract (every Android user accepts Google’s terms and conditions before installing a phone app), it’s so far buried under the fine print of the terms and conditions that users don’t realize what they’re agreeing to. This kind of “deceptive marketing” brings up the possibility that Android might be handled in the same fashion as FreeCreditReport.com. All potential illegalities aside, this method of customizing advertisements is yet another way that Google (among other web giants, including Yahoo!, Facebook and Amazon) is discreetly customizing our lives.

Schmidt said that while Google’s ultimate goal was to begin indexing most personal information in our lives (granted, of course, with clear and reaffirmed permission of the user), the next “logical step” is mobile phones. The idea of “indexing” has already been implemented; the iPhone has for some time offered a search bar that brings up every piece of data on the user’s iPhone that is relevant to the search query. While this might scare some, especially those that incorporate damn near all of their personal information into their smart phones, I’ll admit (as an iPhone user) that it makes searching for obscure pieces of data easier.

Is letting Google take over personal information management crazy? Yes. But is it helpful? Absolutely. Considering the wonderful things Chrome and Android allow us to do in terms of discovering, sharing, and managing information from all walks of life, it’s not absurd to think that letting Google handling EVERYTHING is the worst idea ever. Still, sharing our lives online has made the public sector scary enough. I don’t know if we’re ready to share with the private sector.