September 21, 2012
By Paul Bernal
A story about Facebook went around twitter last night that provoked quite a reaction in privacy advocates like me: Facebook, it seems, is experimenting with getting people to ‘snitch’ on any of their friends who don’t use their real names. Take a look at this:
Facebook has had a ‘real names’ policy for a while: this is what their ‘Help Center’ says on the subject:
People in my field have known about this for a long time – it’s been the cause of a few ‘high profile’ events such as when Salman Rushdie had his account suspended because they didn’t believe that he was who he said he was – but few people had taken it very seriously for anyone other than the famous. Everyone knows ‘fake’ names and ‘fake’ accounts – my sister’s dog has a Facebook account – so few believed that Facebook was going to bother enforcing it, except for obvious trolls and so forth. Now, however, that appears to be changing.
Initially, I wondered if this was just a fake – the screenshot could easily have been faked – but there seems now to have been confirmation. It has been covered in the TMP Idea Lab (here), where they say that Facebook has confirmed that they are doing it, and the German online magazine Heise Online (here, in German) where they report that it is a ‘limited test’. Given that this kind of a test fits in with the official strategy, it seems likely that it is indeed true.
So what’s wrong?
There are lots of argument against the whole ‘real names’ policy to start with – it was a trigger for the ‘nymwars’. Many people can only really function online with the ability to remain pseudonymous, from bloggers like Nightjack to whistleblowers, from victims of abuse to people living in oppressive regimes. When their pseudonymity is ‘broken’, the result can be catastrophic – when Nightjack’s cover was blown, his blog ceased to exist and a valuable and entertaining source of information was lost. Mexican bloggers have suffered much worse – a number have lost their lives in the most gruesome way when the drugs cartels have been able to find them. The link between the ‘online’ and the ‘offline’ personality is one that can often need to be protected. When the ‘real names’ policy is enforced, protecting that link becomes much, much harder.
This, of course, is Facebook, which is just one service, rather than the net as a whole – but it’s a crucial service, with close to a billion users around the world, pretty close to ubiquitous. And, just as importantly, where Facebook leads, other services can and do follow. If the ‘real names’ policy becomes accepted on Facebook, it may become the norm. For some people, that sounds like a good thing – catching paedophiles and terrorists, making sure children don’t get access to ‘inappropriate material’ and so forth – but the reality is very different. The real ‘bad guys’ will find a way around the system – as so often, it will almost certainly be the innocent that get caught up in the messes.
What’s worse, the whole idea of snitching is highly dodgy. There’s a good reason that ‘telling tales’ is looked down on – and a good reason why it’s generally only been oppressive regimes (both real and fictional) that have encouraged people to report on their neighbours – from the worst of the Roman Emperors such as Tiberius and Caligula to the KGB, the Stasi and so forth. It’s creepy – and it helps build at atmosphere of distrust, breaking down the very things that make social networks good. The social relationships that are the heart of Facebook are meant to do ‘good’ things – not be a route by which bad things are spread.
Taking it a step further, look at the nature of the questionnaire. You’re being asked to report on a ‘friend’. If you say ‘I don’t want to answer’ that will be recorded – that’s the whole nature of Facebook – and it’s not hard to see that there could be a list of ‘people who don’t want to answer about their friends’. Indeed, under the terms of the Snoopers Charter, it wouldn’t just be Facebook who could access this kind of information: the authorities could potentially set up a filter to gather data on people who don’t confirm the names of their friends. It could be viewed as suspicious if you don’t answer – or even suspicious if you are friends with people who don’t answer. Again, this is the nature of Facebook’s social data – and how it could be misused.
And, as anyone who reads what I write about the Snoopers Charter etc will understand, though this may just be set up to catch paedophiles and terrorists, it can equally be used for all kinds of things. Potential employers who want to see whether their applicants are ‘open and honest’. Insurance companies for the same ‘reason’. Facebook is now in a situation where it needs to generate income – the failure of its IPO has made this even more crucial than before – and will be looking for ways to squeeze out as much revenue from their data as possible.
That, ultimately, is what lies behind this kind of thing: Facebook wants to make money. If it knows exactly who you are, it thinks it can make more money from you – by selling things to you, or by selling your details to others, or by targeting you more accurately in some other way. That’s perfectly understandable – indeed, from a business sense pretty much inevitable – but it does have consequences, particularly when the other uses that their data can be put are understood.
Oppressive regimes understand some of those uses – which is one of the reasons that the erstwhile Tunisian government, prior to the revolution, hacked into the Facebook login page in order to be able to access possible revolutionaries’ accounts. They knew how that information could be used…
What should be done?
Well, the first thing to do is make it clear that you don’t like this kind of a system. The whole idea of snitching should not be something that’s encouraged – indeed, the whole ‘real names’ system should be discouraged, but it seems hard to put that genie back into Facebook’s bottle. Ultimately, I suspect there’s only one answer: many people should simply leave Facebook. Find other ways to do the things you want to do, other ways that don’t require ‘real names’ and don’t use such sneaky and creepy tactics as snitching. Communicate by email, by twitter. Share your photos on other photo sites. Play games directly, not over Facebook. There’s always another way.