Sunday, May 16, 2010

Is FaceBook A Utility

Disclaimer: These opinions are strictly my own. They do not represent the views of Intel.
Recently, Danah Boyd, @zephoria, posted an excellent article, "Facebook is a utility; utilities get regulated". If you haven't read it, you should (including the comments) and form your own opinion.

To me the real question and I believe Danah captured it well is what is the commodity the Facebook is selling. What does Facebook have a monopoly on? The answer to that question is the connectivity to its network and the private information that people have placed on it. It is that private information people want to protect. It is that connectivity they cannot afford to lose.

I will not argue with the other people commenting that Google is not as significant a near-monopoly as Facebook, nor that Facebook won't eventually be replaced by another network. In fact, I do not use Facebook that much. I prefer a different near-monopoly Twitter for most of my connections. I haven't also placed signficant private information on it at all.

However, Facebook has one attribute that some of its competitors do not, access to some of our private information. That is the information that Facebook wants to monetize. That is what has us upset. This is what people will clamor to regulate.

People do not care so much whether Facebook is a utility or not, except as it potentially exposes that private information without our consent to a much larger audience than we intended. If you read the recent polls on youth online behavior and attitudes, you will see that many of them assume that such protections against that kind of sharing are already in place. Moreover, the Facebook users who have been using the site for years also have that expectation, because that was previously the expectation set by the company.

The convenience of Facebook for reaching one's friends is hard to deny, although it does not seem to include those whom I would like to reach. In fact, the true "utility" of Facebook, what I would dearly love to have, is the universal email-address finder. The one which would allow me to find email addresses of long lost friends, and not just their home addresses and property value which I can find through scary services like Intelius. The hope that Facebook holds out is the hope of reconnection and the hope of staying connected.

Facebook is seeking to trade that for the price of our personal privacy. A price it hopes that others value more than we do. However, it has done that through what appears to many to be a bait-and-switch operation. That is what has people upset. It is not the bargain they signed up for. It is not what they were promised.

And, it is that private information that distinguishes Facebook from Google or Twitter for most people. Neither of those sites has ever asked to share information that I wouldn't naturally consider public. However, if I had a protected account on Twitter, where my tweets were construed as private I would be just as upset about having them monetized and potentially exposed. Similarly, the woman whose email name was shared to her abusive ex by Google when she joined Buzz had similar (and more dramatic) cause for upset. To whom we connect and who we are is private information.

Holding of private information is in some sense a sacred trust. It is the real reason why these companies are likely to get regulated, not their ubiquity.

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