In praise of pseudonyms…

A remarkably inappropriately titled article appeared in the Telegraph this morning.

“Facebook will soon let you post using someone else’s name”

The article itself, however, said something quite different: that ‘Facebook is reportedly working on a mobile app that will let its users interact without using their real name’. If true, this could be important – and a very positive move. Facebook have long been the champions of ‘real names’ policies: for them to recognise that there are important benefits that arise from the use of pseudonymity and sometimes anonymity is a big development – because there are benefits, and pseudonymity is one of the keys to real freedom of speech and autonomy, both online and in the ‘real’ world.

Firstly, to dispose of the Telegraph’s appalling headline, a pseudonym is very rarely ‘someone else’s name’. There are cases where people try to impersonate others, but these are a tiny fraction of the times that people use pseudonyms. Pseudonyms have been used for a very long time, and for very good reasons. Many people are better known for their pseudonyms than for their ‘real’ names – and they certainly didn’t ‘steal’ them. Did Eric Blair steal the name George Orwell? Did Mary Ann Evans steal the name ‘George Eliot’? Did Gideon Osborne steal the name George? And looking at the first two of those names, did Orwell and Eliot, ‘belong’ to someone else? Of course they don’t. Another George even springs to mind: George Osborne. Should we inset on calling him Gideon, because that was the name his parents gave him? I’m politically opposed to him in every way – but I’d defend his right to call himself George, and defend it to the hilt. Pseudonyms often belong to the people using them every bit as much as their ‘real’ names. In some ways they’re even more representative of the people: when choosing a pseudonym, people often put a lot of thought into the process, choosing something that represents them in some way, or represents some aspect of them.

Sometimes it’s about presentation – and sometimes it’s to protect your ‘real’ identity in an entirely reasonable way. It’s not that you have something to hide – but that your autonomy is better served by the ability to separate your life in some ways. Without that ability, your freedom of expression is chilled. As I’ve written before, there are many kinds of people for whom pseudonymity is crucial: whistle-blowers, people whose positions of responsibility make open speech difficult, people with problematic pasts, people with enemies, people in vulnerable positions, people living under oppressive regimes, young people, people with names that identify their ethnicity or religion, women (at times), victims of spousal abuse and others. It’s also something that helps people to let of steam, to explore different aspects of their lives – or simply to enjoy themselves.

I use my real name most of the time online – amongst other things because my ‘online presence’ is part of my job, an because I make professional links and connections here – but I’m in a privileged position, without any of the obvious vulnerabilities. I’m a white, middle-class, middle-aged, educated, employed, able-bodied, heterosexual, married man. It’s easier for me to function online with my real name – but even I don’t always do so. Over the last decade or so I’ve used a number of pseudonyms, and still use one now. For many years my main online presence was as ‘SpiritualWolf’, prowling the football message boards: I’m a Wolves fan. I didn’t particularly want to connect what I was doing on the football boards with my work life or even my home life – and wanted my football postings to be judged for their content, not on the basis of who I might be. Online life works like that. I created ‘SpiritualWolf’ – but I also was SpiritualWolf. It wasn’t someone else’s name – it was my name.

Even now I used a pseudonym – KipperNick – when I play at being the BBC’s Nick Robinson, in his role as cheerleader for UKIP, a role which, sadly, he often plays better than me. It’s a very different kind of identity – a clearly marked parody account – but it allows me a certain kind of freedom, and lets me have some fun. I don’t use it maliciously – at least I don’t try to….

…and that, in the end, is the rub. It’s not the pseudonymity that’s the problem when we’re looking at malicious communications, for example: it’s the malice. By attacking the pseudonyms we’re not just missing the target we’re potentially shutting off a great deal of freedom, chilling speech and controlling people when that control is really unnecessary. I’m delighted that Facebook has begun to realise this – though I’ll believe it when I see it.

 

Thanks to the many people who replied to my initial tweet about this earlier today – I’ve shamelessly used your examples in the blog post!

The Resurrection of Privacy?

The video below is the slideshow of my presentation this morning at the Society of Legal Scholars conference in Nottingham – and what follows it are some brief notes to support it. Some of this is speculative and some of it is contentious – particularly in relation to the relative importance of corporate and governmental surveillance – and this is an early stage of this research, though it builds on the work in my book, Internet Privacy Rights. I should also note that this is a development of the paper I gave at BILETA earlier this year: ‘who killed privacy?’

 

The Resurrection of Privacy?

In 1999, Scott McNealy, then CEO of Sun Microsystems, famously said:

“You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”

Events and developments since 1999 have hardly improved the prospects for privacy: the growth of social networking, technological developments like smartphones, geo-location, business ideas such as behavioural tracking and, most recently, the revelations from Edward Snowden about the near universal surveillance systems of the NSA, GCHQ and others. If privacy was in trouble in 1999, the argument that it is at least close to death in 2014 is much stronger.

That brings two questions:

  • If privacy is dead, who killed it? Did we kill it ourselves? Is it the activities of government agencies like the NSA and GCHQ, or of businesses like Google and Facebook?
  • If if privacy is in fact dead, is there a possible route towards its resurrection?

Suspect 1: us!

On the face of it, it might appear as though we ourselves have simply given up on privacy. We’ve killed it ourselves by embracing all the privacy-invasive technology that’s offered to us, by failing even to read privacy policies, by allowing the intelligence services to do whatever they want, with barely a murmur of protest. More than a billion of us have joined Facebook, for example, a service based at least in some ways on giving up on privacy, sharing our most intimate information.

That, however, is not the whole story. In many ways it appears that what we have done has been through a lack of awareness rather than by deliberate decisions. The extent to which people understand how systems like Facebook work is hard to gauge – but the surprise that people show when bad things happen suggests that there isn’t a great deal of awareness. It also appears that people are becoming more aware – and as they become more aware, they’re making more privacy-based decisions, taking control of their privacy settings and so forth.

Further, when we’re given the chance to see how intelligence agencies work, we don’t seem to be happy about it – though less, it has to be acknowledged, in the UK than in many other countries. Even so, when the Communications Data Bill was put under full scrutiny, it was rejected – in part because of the public reaction. Further, studies show that people don’t like behavioural advertising – and dislike it more when they learn more about how it works.

All this suggests that we aren’t really the key to the death of privacy: we’re more like unwitting accomplices.

Suspect 2: the NSA and GCHQ

The revelations of Edward Snowden about the surveillance activities sent shockwaves through the internet. Many people had already believed that the NSA, GCHQ and other agencies performed surveillance on the internet – Snowden’s revelations seemed to prove it, and to suggest that the level of surveillance was greater even than that feared by the more extreme of conspiracy theorists. Not just had they been gathering telephony and internet data and building (in the US) massive data centres, but they’d been accessing the servers of the big commercial internet providers, tapping into undersea cables, intercepting traffic between server sites and undermining encryption systems – and much more. The level of privacy invasion is extreme.

However, until Edward Snowden revealed all of this, the agencies were working largely in secret – and while this still constitutes a major invasion of privacy, the impact on people’s behaviour is much smaller. If we don’t know we’re being watched, our actions aren’t chilled – and our beliefs about privacy are not changed. Moreover, the kind of harms done to people by surveillance by the NSA and GCHQ are indirect, at least for most people. Finally, and most importantly, if it were not for the commercial operators’ surveillance, the NSA and GCHQ would have far less to ‘feed’ on.

All this is not to dismiss the role of the intelligence services or indeed the impact of their surveillance activities – they should be resisted with the utmost vigour – but in terms of the death of privacy, they can be seen more as opportunist accomplices, rather than instigators.

Suspect 3: businesses like Facebook and Google

The role of the commercial operators on the internet, on the other hand, is both deeper and more significant either than is often believed or than the role of governments and government agencies on their own. The commercial entities have contributed to the decline of privacy in three kinds of ways:

  • Systematic – commercial entities have undermined privacy both in technological and business model senses, developing technologies to invade privacy and business models that depend on systematic and essentially covert gathering of personal data. Businesses have also lobbied strongly to reduce the effectiveness of legal privacy protection. In Europe they have done their best to undermine and weaken data protection – including the on-going reform process. They continue to do so, for example in relation to the right to be forgotten. In the US, they have contributed to the effective scuppering of the Do Not Track initiative.
  • Cooperative – businesses have been working with governments, sometimes willingly, sometimes unwillingly, sometimes knowingly and sometimes unknowingly. The extent of this cooperation and the extent to which is has been willing is unclear – though recent statements from the NSA have suggested that they did know about it and did cooperate willingly. Further, they kept this cooperation secret – until it was revealed by the Snowden leaks.
  • Normative – businesses have been attempting to undermine the idea that privacy is something to value and something of importance. Mark Zuckerberg’s suggestion that ‘privacy is no longer a social norm’ is reflected not just words but actions, encouraging people to ‘share’ information of all kinds rather than consider the privacy impact. Further, they continue to develop technologies that invade privacy inherently – from geo-technology to wearable health monitoring and things like Google Glass.

All this combines to make the role of the businesses look most significant – if anyone is guilty of killing privacy, it is Facebook and Google rather than the NSA and GCHQ. Moreover, the harms to most people possible from corporate surveillance are both tangible and more likely than harms from the NSA and GCHQ: impact on things like insurance, credit ratings, employability, relationships and so forth are not just theoretical.

As Bruce Schneier put it:

“The NSA didn’t wake up and say, ‘Let’s just spy on everybody.’ They looked up and said, ‘Wow, corporations are spying on everybody. Let’s get ourselves a copy.’”

And as Timothy Garton Ash said when considering the Stasi:

“…the Minister for State Security observed that the results achieved by his ministry ‘would be unthinkable without the energetic help and support of the citizens of our country’. ‘For once,’ I comment, ‘what the Minister says is true.’”

Where the Stasi needs the citizen informers, the new surveillance programmes need the ISPs and the internet giants – the Googles, Facebooks, Microsofts, Yahoo!s, Apples and so forth. That is what makes their role in the reverse so important.

The resurrection of privacy

In the post-Snowden environment, at least on the surface, businesses have started to take a more ‘pro-privacy’ stance. Whether that meaningful, or they are just paying lip service to it, has yet to be seen. Their role, however, is crucial.

Reversing the three roles noted above – systematic, cooperative and normative – could produce a positive impact for privacy, effectively being a part of the ‘resurrection’ of privacy:

  • Systematic – businesses could play a part by building more robust technology and developing more privacy-friendly business models
  • Cooperative – and Resistant. Businesses could cooperate more with civil society and academia in working towards privacy – and could do more to resist being co-opted by governments, not just being more transparent in their dealings with governments but acting as a barrier and protection for their users in their dealings with governments.
  • Normative – businesses could play a part in changing the message so that it becomes clearer that privacy is a social norm.

At the moment it seems unlikely that businesses will do very much of this – but there are a few signs that are positive. Real names policies have been relaxed on Google +, and even Facebook has shown some moves in that direction. All the big companies are doing more to secure their systems – encryption is more common, both in the infrastructure and in user systems. Google does at least seem to be making some attempt to cooperate with the right to be forgotten – though whether these attempts are being done in good faith has yet to be seen.

It will probably take a miracle – resurrections generally do – but miracles do sometimes happen.

Data and politics…

CarswellOne of the less obvious side shows to the defection of Douglas Carswell MP from the Tories to UKIP has been the report that he may be taking his data with him – detailed data about his constituents, it appears, and according to the Daily Mail people at UKIP are ‘purring’ at the prospect of getting hold of the data.

This raises many, many issues – not least data protection issues. The excellent Jon Baines (@bainesy1969 on twitter) has been blogging about political data issues for some time, not least how it appears that political parties ride roughshod over data protection law and yet somehow the Information Commissioner’s Office does not want to get involved. He’s written something today in relation to Douglas Carswell – you can read it here.  As Jon Baines explains, there are many legal issues to deal with, including a possible criminal offence.

Even setting the law to one side, there are some very disturbing aspects to this.

The first is a moral or ethical one – when people gave their data to Carswell, or to the local Conservative Party, they presumably intended (if they thought about it at all) to help the Conservative Party – Carswell was, at the time at least, a representative of the Conservative Party, and made many statements of loyalty. Would they be happy for that data then to be used by UKIP, a rival party? Some might have UKIP sympathies, and might well follow Carswell in his defection – but many others might not, and their data is being taken along with those who might defect, and without the chance to object or consent. Data protection law should require this – but in practice it might well fail to produce the results it should. Can we expect a moral or ethical approach from Douglas Carswell on the matter, recognising these issues? I doubt it very much. Morality and ethics are in very short supply in politics even at the best of times. These are very far from the best of times.

The second is a deeper one – it seems to me that we don’t consider nearly enough the impact of data on politics. The most obvious aspect of the Carswell business is the gathering of the data, but the use of that data is perhaps even more important and could have even more impact. I’ve written about this before – most notably in my book, Internet Privacy Rights – but it bears repeating. The use of data for political purposes is something of increasing importance. Obama knew that, and one of his key strategies for re-election was better use of data. This piece ‘How President Obama’s campaign used big data to rally individual voters‘, gives at least a flavour of what Obama did – and the beginning of a sense of what might be possible in the future. Data such as that gathered by Carswell could be aggregated with other data, much of it commercially gathered, and used for profiling in increasingly sophisticated ways. Here’s a brief extract from my book (chapter 10) that hints at what kind of thing can – and almost certainly will – happen in the future. Indeed, some of it is already happening now.

“Imagine, for example, tailored advertisements created for individual ‘swing voters’ (selected automatically through profiling), pointing out a party’s positive steps in the policy areas that are most likely to interest them (also selected automatically), omitting those areas where party policy doesn’t fit, and couching it in a language appropriate to the individual’s ethnic, educational, cultural and linguistic background, illustrated with a few appropriate news TV clips, and playing background music exactly to the individual’s taste and voiced over by an actor that profiling reveals that individual likes? The reverse, of course, about the political party’s opponents – negative campaigning and personal attacks taken to an extreme level. This could be extended from tailored advertisements to whole ‘news’ pages where the ‘news’ provider has a particular political agenda, and also (and more simply) to individual automated emails.”

Now I don’t imagine for a moment that UKIP’s operation is anywhere near as sophisticated as that – right now, most UK political parties seem to be lagging far behind the US in this field – but the ideas and the possibilities ought to be giving us pause for thought. Recent events like the Facebook Experiment, which I’ve blogged about before, show how the internet can be used to manipulate people. Political manipulation is just one of the possibilities. We need to be very careful here – and pay more attention to how our data can be used to manipulate us.

Dave Eggers’ The Circle: a book for our times…

I was introduced to Dave Eggers’ novel, The Circle, by Professor Andrew Murray – one of the pre-eminent scholars in IT Law in the UK, and also on of my PhD supervisors. I know I’m very late to this game – the book came out in 2013, and all the cool people will already have read it or reviewed it, but in this case I think it’s worth it. And the fact that someone like Andrew Murray would recommend it should give pause for thought: this isn’t just an entertaining piece of science fiction, it’s a book that really makes you think. It’s not just a dystopian vision of the future, it’s one that is far, far closer to reality than almost any I’ve read – and dystopian novels and films are pretty much my favourite genre.

It’s a book that reminded me why, unlike most of my schoolmates, I always preferred Brave New World to 1984 – and why, of the various privacy stories of the last few months I suspect, ultimately, the Facebook Experiment and the ruling over the Right to be Forgotten will matter more than the passing of the deeply depressing DRIP. In the end, as The Circle demonstrates graphically, we have more to fear from corporate domination of the Internet than we do from all the spooks and law enforcement agencies.

The Circle from which the novel gets its name is a technology company that combines a great deal of Google and Facebook with a little dash of Apple and a touch of Twitter. It dominates search and social media, but also makes cool and functional hardware. Egger’s triumph in the Circle is that he really gets not just the tech but the culture that surrounds it – little details like sending frowns to paramilitaries in Guatemala echo campaigns like #BringBackOurGirls in their futility, superficiality and ultimate inanity. The lives portrayed in the Circle should send shivers down the spines of any of us who spend much time on Twitter or Facebook: that I read the book whilst on a holiday without much Internet access made the point to me most graphically.

Privacy is theft

Eggers echoes both 1984 and Brave New World in using slogans to encapsulate concepts – exaggerating to make the point. For the Circle, these are:

Secrets are lies
Sharing is caring
Privacy is theft

All three are linked together – and connected to the idea that there’s something almost mystical about data. We don’t just have no right to privacy, we have a duty to disclose, a duty to be transparent. A failure to disclose means we’re depriving others of the benefits of our information: by claiming privacy, we’re stealing opportunities and advantages that others have the right to. If we care about others, we should share with them. This is Facebook, this is Google Flu Trends – and it’s the philosophy that implies that those of us who oppose the care.data scheme through which all our health data will be shared with researchers, pharmaceutical companies and many others, are selfish Luddites likely to be responsible for the deaths of thousands.

It is also the philosophy behind a lot of the opposition to the right to be forgotten. That opposition is based on the myth – one that Eggers exposes excellently – that the records on the Internet represent ‘the truth’ and that tampering with them, let alone deleting anything from them, is tantamount to criminality. Without spoiling the plot too much, one of the characters is psychologically and almost physically destroyed by the consequences of that. Eggers neatly leaves it unclear whether the key ‘facts’ that do the damage are actually real – he knows that this, ultimately, isn’t the point. Even if it all were true, the idea that maintaining it and exposing it would be a general good, something to be encouraged and fought for, is misguided at best.

It’s about power – and how it’s wielded

In the novel, The Circle has the power – and it wields it in many ways. Emotional manipulation, keeping people happy and at the same time keeping them within the Circle, is the key point – and the echoes of the Facebook Experiment, about which much has been written, but much has missed the deeper points, are chilling here. One of the real functions of the experiment was for Facebook to find ways to keep people using Facebook…

Another of the key ways that the Circle wields power is through its influence over lawmakers – and the same is sadly evident of Google and Facebook, in the UK as much as in the US. In the UK in particular the influence over things like opposition to data protection reform – and the right to be forgotten – are all too clear. It would be great if this could change, but as in the novel, the powers and common interests are far too strong for much chance. More’s the pity.

As a novel, The Circle is not without fault. I guessed the main plot twist less than half-way through the book. There’s a good deal of hyperbole – but this is dystopian fiction, after all – and the tech itself is not exactly described convincingly. What’s more, the prose is far from beautiful, the characters are mostly rather two-dimensional, and often they’re used primarily to allow Eggers to make his points, often through what amount to set speeches – but Huxley was guilty of that from time to time too. Those speeches, however, are often worth reading. Here, one of the dissidents explains his objections:

“It’s the usual utopian vision. This time they were saying it’ll reduce waste. If stores know what their customers want, then they don’t overproduce, don’t overship, don’t have to throw stuff away when it’s not bought. I mean, like everything else you guys are pushing, it sounds perfect, sounds progressive, but it carries with it more control, more central tracking of everything we do.”

“Mercer, the Circle is a group of people like me. Are you saying that somehow we’re all in a room somewhere, watching you, planning world domination?”

“No. First of all, I know it’s all people like you. Individually you don’t know what you’re doing collectively. But secondly, don’t presume the benevolence of your leaders.”

In that brief exchange Eggers shows how well he gets the point. A little later he nails why we should care much more about this but don’t, focussing instead on the spooks of the NSA and GCHQ.

“Here, though, there are no oppressors. No one’s forcing you to do this. You willingly tie yourself to these leashes.”

That’s the problem. We don’t seem to see the risk – indeed, just as in the novel, we willingly seem to embrace the very things that damage us. Lawmakers, too, seem not to see the problem – and as noted all too often allow themselves to be lobbied into compliance. The success of Google’s lobbyists over the right to be forgotten is testimony to this. Even now, people who really should know better are being persuaded to support the Circle sorry, I mean Google’s business model rather than address a real, important privacy issue.

Coming to a society near you…

We’re taking more and more steps in the direction of the Circle. Not just the Facebook experiment and the reaction to the ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling – but even in the last week or two a House of Lords committee has recommended an end to online anonymity, effectively asking service providers to require real names before receiving services. This is one of the central planks of the way the Circle takes control over people’s lives, and one which our lawmakers seem to be very happy to give them. There are also stories going around about government plans to integrate various databases from health and the DVLA to criminal records… another key tenet of the Circle‘s plans… The ‘detailed’ reasons for doing so sound and seem compelling – but the ultimate consequences could be disastrous…

Anyway, that’s enough from me. Read the book. I’ll be recommending it to
my Internet Law and Privacy students, but I hope it’s read much more widely than that. It deserves to be.

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Facebook, Google and the little people….

This last week has emphasised the sheer power and influence of the internet giants – Facebook and Google in particular.

The Facebook Experiment

First we had the furore over the so-called ‘Facebook Experiment’ – the revelation that Facebook had undertaken an exercise in ‘emotional contagion’, effectively trying to manipulate the emotions of nearly 700,000 of its users without their consent, knowledge or understanding. There were many issues surrounding it (some of which I’ve written about here) starting with the ethics of the study itself, but the most important thing to understand is that the experiment succeeded, albeit not very dramatically. That is, by manipulating people’s news feeds, Facebook found that they were able to manipulate peoples emotions. However you look at the ethics of this, that’s a significant amount of power.

Google and the Right to be Forgotten

Then we’ve had the excitement over Google’s ‘clumsy’ implementation of the ECJ ruling in the Google Spain case. I’ve speculated before about Google’s motivations in implementing the ruling so messily, but regardless of their motivations the story should have reminded us of the immense power that Google have over how we use the internet. This power is demonstrated in a number of ways. Firstly, in the importance we place in whether a story can be found through Google – those who talk about the Google Spain ruling being tantamount to censorship are implicitly recognising the critical role that Google plays and hence the immense power that they wield. Secondly, it has demonstrated Google’s power in that, ultimately, how Google decides to interpret and implement the ruling of the court is what decides whether we can or cannot find a story. Thirdly, the way that Google seems to be able to drive the media agenda has been apparent: it sometimes seems as though people in the media are dancing to Google’s tune.

Further, though the early figures for takedown requests under the right to be forgotten sound large – 240,000 since the Google Spain ruling – the number of requests they deal with based on copyright is far higher: 42,324,954 since the decision. Right to be forgotten requests are only 0.5% of those under copyright. Google deals with these requests without the fanfare of the right to be forgotten – and apart from a few internet freedom advocates, very few people seem to even notice. Google has that much control, and their decisions have a huge impact upon us.

Giants vs. Little People

Though the two issues seem to have very little in common, they both reflect the huge power that the internet giants have over ordinary people. It is very hard for ordinary people to fight for their rights – for little people to be able to face up to giants. Little people, therefore, have to do two things: use every tool they can in the fight for their rights, and support each other when that support is needed. When the little people work together, they can punch above their weight. One of the best ways for this to happen, is through civil society organisations. All around the world, civil society organisations make a real difference – from the Open Rights Group and Privacy International in the UK to EDRi in Europe and the EFF in the US. One of the very best of these groups – and one that punches the most above its weight, has been Digital Rights Ireland. They played a critical role in one of the most important legal ‘wins’ for privacy in recent years: the effective defeat of the Data Retention Directive, one of the legal justifications for mass surveillance. They’re a small organisation, but one with expertise and a willingness to take on the giants. Given that so many of those giants – including Facebook – are officially based in Ireland, Digital Rights Ireland are especially important.

Europe vs. Facebook

There is one particular conflict between the little people and the giants that is currently in flux: the ongoing legal fight between campaigner Max Schrems and Facebook. Schrems, who is behind the ‘Europe vs. Facebook’ campaign,  has done brilliantly so far, but his case appears to be at risk. After what looked like an excellent result – the referral by the Irish High Court to the ECJ of his case against Facebook (which relates to the vulnerability of Facebook data to US surveillance via the PRISM program) – Schrems is reported as considering abandoning his case, as the possible costs might bankrupt him if things go badly.

This would be a real disaster – and not just for Schrems. This case really matters in a lot of ways. The internet giants need to know that we little people can take them on: if costs can put us off, the giants will be able to use their huge financial muscle to win every time. It’s a pivotal case – for all of us. For Europeans, it matters in protecting our data from US surveillance. For non Europeans it matters, because it challenges the US giants at a critical point – we all need them to fight against US surveillance, and they’ll only really do that wholeheartedly if it matters to their bottom line. This case could seriously hit Facebook’s bottom line – so if they lost, they’d have to do something to protect their data from US surveillance. They wouldn’t just do that for European Facebook users, they’d do it for all.

Referral to the ECJ is critical, not just because it might give a chance to win, but because (as I’ve blogged before) recently the ECJ has shown more engagement with technological issues and more willingness to rule in favour of privacy – as in the aforementioned invalidation of the Data Retention Directive and in the contentious ruling in Google Spain. We little people need to take advantage of those times when the momentum is on our side – and right now, at least in some ways, the momentum seems to be with us in the eyes of the ECJ.

So what can be done to help Schrems? Well, the first thing I would suggest to Max is to involve Digital Rights Ireland. They could really help him – and I understand that they’ve been seeking an amicus brief in the case. They’re good at this kind of thing, and they and other organizations in Europe have experience in raising the funds for this type of case. Max has done brilliant work, but where ‘little people’ have to face up to giants, they’re much better off not fighting alone.

The Facebook Experiment: the ‘why’ questions…

Facebook question markA great deal has been written about the Facebook experiment – what did they actually do, how did they do it, what was the effect, was it ethical, was it legal, will it be challenged and so forth – but I think we need to step back a little and ask two further questions. Why did they do the experiment, and why did they publish it in this ‘academic’ form.

What Facebook tell us about their motivations for the experiment should be taken with a distinct pinch of salt: we need to look further. What Facebook does, it generally does for one simple reason: to benefit Facebook’s bottom line. They do things to build their business, and to make more money. That may involve getting more subscribers, or making those subscribers stay online for longer, or, most crucially and most directly, by getting more money from its advertisers. Subscribers are interesting, but the advertisers are the ones that pay.

So, first of all, why would Facebook want to research into ‘emotional contagion’? Facebook isn’t a psychology department in a university – they’re a business. There are a few possible reasons – and I suspect the reality is a mixture of them. At the bottom level, they want to check whether emotions can be ‘spread’, and they want to look at the mechanisms through which this spreading happens. There have been conflicting theories – for example, does seeing lots of happy pictures of your friends having exciting holidays make you happier, or make you jealous and unhappy – and Facebook would want to know which of these is true, and when. But then we need to ask ‘why’ they would want to know all this – and there’s only one obvious answer to that: because they want to be able to tap into that ability to spread emotional effects. They don’t just want to know that emotional contagion works out of academic interest – they want to be able to use it to make money.

This is where the next level of creepiness comes in. If, as they seem to think, they can spread emotional effects, how will they use that ability. With Facebook, it’s generally all about money – so in this case, that means that they will want to find ways to use emotional contagion as an advertising tool. The advertising possibilities are multiple. If you can make people associate happiness with your product, there’s a Pavlovian effect just waiting to make them salivate. If you can make people afraid, they’ll presumable be more willing to spend money on things or services to protect themselves – the lobbying efforts of those in the cybersecurity industry to make us afraid of imminent cyberwarfare or cyberterrorism are an example that springs to mind. So if Facebook can prove that emotional contagion works, and prove it in a convincing way, it opens up a new dimension of possible advertising opportunities.

That also gives part of the answer to the ‘why did they do this in this academic form’ question. An academic paper looks much more convincing than an internal, private research report. Academia provides credibility – though as an academic I’m all too aware of how limited, not to say flimsy, that credibility can be. Facebook can wave the academic paper in the faces of the advertisers – and the government agencies – and say ‘look, it’s not just us that are claiming this, it’s been proven, checked and reviewed, and by academics’.

So far, so obvious – isn’t emotional contagion just like ordinary advertising? Isn’t this all just making a mountain out of a molehill? Well, perhaps to an extent, so long as users of Facebook are aware that the whole of Facebook is, as far as Facebook is concerned, about ways to make money out of them. However, there are reasons that subliminal advertising is generally illegal – and this has some of the feeling of subliminal advertising to it, and it does have a ‘whiff of creepy’ about it. We don’t know how we’re being manipulated. We don’t know when we’re being manipulated. We don’t know why we’re seeing what we’re seeing – and we don’t know what we’re not seeing. If people imagine their news feed is just a feed, tailored perhaps a little according to their interests and interactions, a way of finding out what is going on in the world – or rather in their friends’ worlds – then they are being directly and deliberately misled. I for one don’t like this – which is why I’m not on Facebook and suggest to others to leave Facebook – but I do understand that I’m very much in the minority in that.

That brings me to my last ‘why’ question (for now). Why didn’t they anticipate the furore that would come from this paper? Why didn’t they realise that privacy advocates would be up in arms about it? I think there’s a simple answer to that: they did, but they didn’t mind. I have a strong suspicion, which I mentioned in my interview on BBC World News, that they expected all of this, and thought that the price in terms of bad publicity, a little loss of goodwill, a few potential investigations by data protection authorities and others, and perhaps even a couple of lawsuits, was one that was worth paying. Perhaps a few people will spend less time on Facebook, or even leave Facebook. Perhaps Facebook will look a little bad for a little while – but the potential financial benefit from the new stream of advertising revenue, the ability to squeeze more money from a market that looks increasingly saturated and competitive, outweighs that cost.

Based on the past record, they’re quite likely to be right. People will probably complain about this for a while, and then when the hoo-haa dies down, Facebook will still have over a billion users, and new ways to make money from them. Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t mind looking like the bad guy (again) for a little while. Why should he? The money will continue to flow – and whether it impacts upon the privacy and autonomy of the people on Facebook doesn’t matter to Facebook one way or another. It has ever been thus….