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Should You Be Able To Leave Facebook With All of Your Connections?

When online privacy faces off against portability

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For all the apparent consensus about the need for action, the most striking feature of the "techlash" is how little agreement there is on the nature of the problem. Consider some of the complaints about just one company: that Facebook is a monopoly, that Facebook and Facebook-owned Instagram are addictive, that Facebook is making us miserable, that Facebook cannot be trusted with our data, that Facebook is unjustly profiting off our data, that Facebook has a left-wing bias, that Facebook has a right-wing bias, and that Facebook explains the election of Donald Trump.

Muddling matters further, the advocates of decisive action—say, breaking up Facebook—often invoke problems that their preferred solution would do nothing to address. Worse still: In many cases, trying to solve one problem will make another worse.

Consider the choice between prioritising privacy protection and allowing competition and innovation on the other. Internet companies' misuse of personal data is often bundled together with complaints about monopoly power —privacy looms large in Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes's case for breaking up the social media company, for example — but the two aren't as connected as you might think. It's possible to imagine an internet where strict rules closely guard data about our lives. It's also possible to imagine an internet that is more open, more dynamic, and therefore a more hostile place for monopolists keen to limit competition and erect barriers to entry. But it is difficult to imagine an internet that is both. 

This tension is most apparent when it comes to data portability, the subject of a recent Facebook White Paper. For some of the most prominent voices calling for action on big tech, it's essential to make it easier for people to move their data from one platform to another. More generally, the logic of the popular refrain that it is your data is that you should be able to do what you want with that data. But almost by definition, more portable data means less security. The E.U.'s extensive General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) rules, which came into effect last year, include a "right to data portability." Exactly what that right entails, and who it can be claimed against, remains unclear.

Professor Luigi Zingales, an economist at the University of Chicago, has argued for something more extensive: a right not just to your data, but to your "social graph"—a record of all your social connections online. That would make it easy for Facebook users to move to a new social network, boosting competition and counteracting the network effects that help put the tech giant in such a position of strength. Here's how Zingales and his colleague Guy Rolnik explain it: "If we owned our own social graph, we could sign into a Facebook competitor—call it MyBook—and, through that network, instantly reroute all our Facebook friends' messages to MyBook, as we reroute a phone call. If I can reach my Facebook friends through a different social network and vice versa, I am more likely to try new social networks. Knowing they can attract existing Facebook customers, new social networks will emerge, restoring the benefit of competition."

Yet it was a more limited form of this openness, albeit for developers and at the discretion of Facebook, that led to the biggest scandal in the firm's history—or at least its biggest fine. Access to users' social graph was what made the Cambridge Analytica breach possible, and it set in motion a series of events that ended with a $5 billion penalty for the tech giant. Keen to be seen to have responded decisively to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook has since tightened access. Leading researchers have complained that the move has hampered research into social networks, reduced Facebook's accountability for its actions, and—most importantly for this discussion—secured the firm's market position. "Contrary to popular belief," writes Axel Bruns, the president of the Association of Internet Researchers, "these changes are as much about strengthening Facebook's business model of data control as they are about actually improving data privacy for users." 

If you are a citizen of an E.U. member state and you want the right to export your social graph, don't hold your breath. GDPR may give you a right to data portability, but anything more extensive would likely be in breach of your online acquaintances' newly strengthened privacy rights. Whether or not it is the solution Zingales argues it is, European regulators have decided that privacy is more important.

Indeed, it has been more than a year since GDPR came into effect and the impact on online openness and innovation in Europe has been stark. One study found that the law caused the venture capital invested in E.U. startups to fall by as much as 50 percent. The reach of Google's third-party ad and data tracking services has actually increased, and Facebook's has declined only slightly; the smallest companies have taken a hit of more than 30 percent. In one survey, 55 percent of respondents said they had worked on deals that fell apart because of concerns about a target company's compliance with GDPR. 

Far from being a decisive blow against big tech, the legislation so far appears to have cemented the tech giants' dominant market positions. Some techlash.

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  1. I’m sure they got some “input and guidance “ from FB when drafting these rules.

  2. Or just ignore social media, and be social with real people face to face?
    What a concept.

    1. Yeah, maybe if you want to own your social network information, you shouldn’t put it all on a platform whose explicit purpose for existence is to advertise to you based on the information you give them and who has a great incentive to keep its users.

    2. You know, I realize you think you have a point, but revealed preferences.

      What a concept.

  3. For all the apparent consensus about the need for action, the most striking feature of the “techlash” is how little agreement there is on the nature of the problem. Consider some of the complaints about just one company: that Facebook is a monopoly, thatFacebook andFacebook-owned Instagram are addictive, thatFacebook is making us miserable, that acebook cannot be trusted with our data, that Facebook is unjustly profiting off our data, that Facebook has a left-wing bias, that Facebook has a right-wing bias, and that Facebook explains the election of Donald Trump.

    Hmmmmmm

  4. Yes. You should have the right for your data and connections to be deleted. This is doubly true if one of these companies is violates their ToS and deletes or revokes your access.

  5. It’s possible to imagine an internet where strict rules closely guard data about our lives.

    Well, maybe, but only if you have easy access to a large quantity of peyote. There are strict rules about mislabeling food and driving on public highways and shooting people in the face, and yet those sorts of things still happen. If you pay attention to tech news, there’s a regular stream of “oopsies” involving data security that aren’t supposed to happen and stricter rules aren’t going to fix stupidity and greed and malevolence.

    1. Yeah, that one struck me, too. Rules don’t safeguard anything. Rules just give you an excuse to punish the people who didn’t do “enough” safeguarding.

  6. Social media’s entire existence is predicated on selling every bit of information about you. Even if you choose not to give it to them. Between them and the government spying on your every move it is the most illiberal situation that no true libertarian would defend.

  7. “The logic of the popular refrain that it is your data is that you should be able to do what you want with that data.”

    Once you trade your data to Facebook in exchange for their services, it isn’t your data anymore. Incidentally, once you buy milk at the grocery store, that money belongs to the grocery store, too–for all the same reasons.

    I recently had a conversation with someone who was upset that a retailer’s ads showed up on her Facebook timeline. How dare they let some retailer invade her Facebook page that way?! I told her she should call up Facebook and tell them she wants her money back.

    Turns out she doesn’t pay Facebook any money at all. I asked her how she thought Facebook made money. They’ve gotta be paying the electricity bill somehow, right? Who’s paying them all that money? The implication should have been obvious, but she actually needed someone to tell her that Facebook makes its money by selling her information to the retailer that shows her ads.

    How dare she complain about the retailer putting ads on their Facebook page–when the retailer is letting her cover their Facebook page with garbage about her friends and family?

    My favorite scene from Parks and Recreation has a member of the public complaining to Ron, “There’s a sign in the park that says not to drink the water from the sprinklers, so I made some tea with it–and now I have an infection. Are you aware that your sprinklers contain reclaimed water?”

    The other day we were talking about the fear that improvements in productivity due to automation and AI might obviate the need for work and employees, and I pointed out that we’ve been dealing with that sort of thing for decades. Squirrels are smart enough to feed themselves and avoid danger, but there plenty of people who aren’t as smart as squirrels–when measured in that objective way. Our collective productivity is such that these people manage to get fed anyway, despite their personal inability to do anything of value, but I’m not sure what to do about those among them who aren’t smart enough to make the choices for themselves to avoid danger.

    I just know that antitrust isn’t the best way to address the problem of people being incapable of thinking for themselves or refusing to do so.

  8. “If I can reach my Facebook friends through a different social network and vice versa, I am more likely to try new social networks.”

    I appreciate the logic behind this. Yes, imagine if people who use Verizon couldn’t call people who use AT&T. That would suck. Wouldn’t it be great if people could take their contacts with them when they leave Facebook–of if a message written by someone on one of Facebook’s competitors would show up on their friends’ feeds in Facebook?

    There’s this thing called “the problem of induction”, and I’m familiar with it. On the other hand, sometimes great theories don’t hold up in the laboratory–and this is one theory that hasn’t held up to testing in my personal laboratory. I’ve enticed some friends and family to start using MeWe and Slack, but I’ve also seen new users (young and old people getting into social media for the first time) gravitate to Facebook (or Instagram)–even when they’re 1) aware of the other options, 2) aware of the threats to their privacy, and 3) are starting their social media life for the first time with a friends list of zero.

    I’m a libertarian, and that means I often find myself in situations where I care more about other people’s rights (like privacy) than they do. As a libertarian capitalist, I also understand that markets are people making choices. As libertarians, we don’t support forcing other people to do as we want. They should be free to make choices for themselves–even if I don’t like the choices they make. So, if the fact is that plenty of people choose Facebook, despite being aware of the privacy concerns, other options, and despite the fact that they’re making their very first friends’ list for the first time anyway, then it is what it is.

    Some people genuinely love Nickleback.

  9. I should also add one other objection to the suggestion that making Facebook friends either transportable or universally accessible from competing services would be an excellent solution, and that has to do with where the analogy to people on competing phone services not being able to call each other breaks down.

    Phone service is primarily a communication platform. Making it so subscribers to T-Mobile can call Sprint customers doesn’t interfere with the primary purpose of the service. Conversely, Facebook is not primarily a communication platform. It’s an advertising platform.

    They make almost all of their money from advertising. If you want an analogy to imagine what it would be like if we were making Facebook’s platform open to customers on other platforms, you should compare them to another advertising platform. Why should ABC be able to restrict viewership to their show “America’s Best Home Videos” on Sunday nights to only their own broadcast affiliates? That’s not fair to other networks! They need to open up that show so other networks can broadcast advertising on their show to the same audience. Who cares if ABC invested a tremendous amount of money to create that content and build up that demographic for that show in that time slot over the course of decades?

    If you made it so other networks could carry any other network’s content and reach those same consumers of ABC’s programming, you would destroy the entire basis of the broadcast television industry–because broadcast television isn’t driven by communication. It’s driven by advertising–just like it is with Facebook. You cannot deprive social media companies of the exclusive right to serve user generated content to advertisers without completely disrupting the entire industry. That’s what the industry is. That’s what it does. While I wish people were more reluctant to subject themselves to Facebook’s terms, the fact is that plenty of them are happy to do so, and if Facebook has built themselves a lucrative business serving the desires of their customers, then the government has no business destroying it.

    1. Who cares if ABC invested a tremendous amount of money to create that content and build up that demographic for that show in that time slot over the course of decades?

      But YouTube, Facebook, Instagram DON’T create the content or build the demographics–the users do.

      1. The people who create content for broadcast television do so willingly, and so do the people who create content for Facebook.

    2. […] Facebook has built themselves a lucrative business serving the desires of their customers, then the government has no business destroying it.

      Spoken like a true libertarian.

      And like a true libertarian, completely unpersuasive to folks that don’t take such an absolutist view of capitalism.

      That said, I think you overstate how “disruptive” it would be. As Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, and untold torrent sites have shown, you can divorce the content from the advertising, and the “service” can still survive. Heck, some TV stations get by without any original programming, just re-running old stuff that people could find elsewhere easily for free. Some folks really will pay (either in data or cash) for someone else to curate and choose content for them.

      So while yes, it would be disruptive, I think your apocalyptic notions of what would happen if Facebook’s “network” were extracted into a neutral utility, leaving Facebook akin to a telephone provider that doesn’t create the service, just provides access to it, are overblown. Facebook would adapt. Just as it has before. And if not? Well, GeoCities once looked like it would last forever too.

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  11. Consider some of the complaints about just one company: that Facebook is a monopoly, that Facebook and Facebook-owned Instagram are addictive, that Facebook is making us miserable, that Facebook cannot be trusted with our data, that Facebook is unjustly profiting off our data, that Facebook has a left-wing bias, that Facebook has a right-wing bias, and that Facebook explains the election of Donald Trump.

    Two of the aforementioned things are true, and only one really matters.

  12. “Consider the choice between prioritising privacy protection and allowing competition and innovation on the other.”

    Why does the word “allowing” only appear in the 2nd choice ?
    Reason seems to imply that prioritization of privacy protection is a right of some kind.
    Reason created its own fallacy that it concludes.

    “But it is difficult to imagine an internet that is both. “

    1. Reason seems to imply that prioritization of privacy protection is a right of some kind.

      How so? It’s something the government could declare a right. Acknowledging that doesn’t mean Reason thinks it is some kind of natural right.

  13. This would only work with some form of internet ID because if someone uses a different email or a different name like “Ray” instead of “Raymond” there is no way to connect. The sites would have to share the same data. For an individual, just find your friends. I wouldn’t want a business finding me on another platform.

  14. >blockquote>a right not just to your data, but to your “social graph”—a record of all your social connections online. That would make it easy for Facebook users to move to a new social network,

    But, you already have this data. Its right there. All you need to do is copy it. Is what these people are asking for, for Facebook to do the heavy lifting for you? You can write your contacts down. You can move to a new platform. You can then use that info to send out new invites.

    Or are they asking Facebook to create a standard where Facebook can interface with other social media directly so it doesn’t matter what you use, they’re *all* interconnected? Is that any better when it comes to privacy? Or to the other social ill people say social media causes?

    1. They want you to be socially connected to your ex FOREVER! It will follow you everywhere!

  15. “Should You Be Able To Leave Facebook With All of Your Connections?”

    Absolutely.
    This way FascistBook will be able to obtain more information about you and ensure you’re politically correct and wandering aimlessly in the wilderness of freedom.
    The proggies at FascistBook are always looking out for your best interests.

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  17. Everyone knows that all information about us is available through social networks. We are being watched over the Internet.

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