Systems designer Matthew Milan and technologist Joseph Dee are two of the over 24,500 users who have committed to unplug themselves from social networking site Facebook tomorrow. A seemingly minuscule population (0.005 per cent) of the over 450 million global users of social networking site Facebook, they plan to commit ‘digital suicide’ to protest against the social networking site “ignoring privacy issues and not being open”.
“...For a lot of people, quitting Facebook revolves around privacy. This is a legitimate concern, but we also think the privacy issue is just the symptom of a larger set of issues. We just can’t see Facebook’s current direction being aligned with any positive future for the web, so we’re leaving,” reads a statement on quitfacebookday.com, a website created by Milan and Dee.
In India, though, hardly any of the estimated 16 million Facebook users appear perturbed over the development.
Consider this. Ankit Vengurlekar, a TV presenter says he is “ready to pay the price for putting out so much of his life online”. He believes the advantages and convenience of using Facebook far outweigh these privacy concerns for the average user. “All of us have had our Gmail accounts compromised at least once in five-seven years of usage. However, have any of us quit using it?,” he counters.
Social networking users like Apurva Narang assert that privacy is simple — don’t post something online which you don’t want others to see. The broader issue, cautions Narang, is if Facebook sells users’ data to third-party developers.
“I have been hearing a lot about it — how all our information is open to the public. I don’t put too much on my page — too many personal things — so I am not super worried about it,” says Prekash Kasliwal, who claims to spend an hour daily on Facebook. He adds, “But I do think it is a concern and I think it’s something that should be addressed because it is not meant to be open to everyone.”
Ranjini Chalam, a PR professional, concurs: “Considering, there have been so many cases where accounts are hacked, pictures and user information have been misused, I feel Facebook’s latest stance on simplifying privacy controls for its users will be beneficial to members.”
While most Indian users remain passive, globally Facebook has come under the privacy scanner. In December 2009, for instance, it changed the default settings on its privacy controls so that individuals’ personal information would be shared with ‘everyone’ rather than selected friends. The move made privacy activists see red. They lobbied for it to be reversed, reasoning that as people share more, Facebook can increase the traffic against which it sells advertising.
And last month, at a developers’ conference, Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg announced some more policy changes including an 'instant personalisation’ feature which can give third-party websites access to Facebook data when people visit it. European officials, too, are upset with Facebook, calling its decision to loosen the default settings “unacceptable”. In the US, the Electronic Privacy Information Centre has asked America’s Federal Trade Commission to see if Facebook’s approach to privacy violates consumer protection laws. Jennifer Stoddar, Canada’s privacy commissioner too is furious with Facebook for backtracking on its August 2009 agreement to change its policies within a year in a bid to comply with the country’s privacy law.
So is it indifference or lack of awareness on the part of Indian users? A majority of Indian users are not aware of online privacy laws, remarks Moksh Juneja who is an early user of Facebook. “It’s primarily the early adopters and nerdy types that are more aware of how your privacy can be compromised online. We should wake up,” he adds.
“Online pressure groups are good for cyberspace,” concurs Hareesh Tibrewala, joint CEO at SocialWavelength.com. However, he adds that “Facebook is a broadcast medium. Hence, users should take care to share as much information as they are comfortable with. Why, for instance, should you display your cellphone number on a broadcast medium?” he asks.
“From the Indian point of view, I think there are not many users who worry about piracy. For a few thousand rupees today, I can buy a database of 350 million mobile users — the spams we get are proof of this. Since users won’t do much, I hope the government will step in to educate netizens,” says search engine marketing firm Pinstorm founder & CEO Mahesh Murthy.
Reacting to privacy protests, Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg (he started it in 2004 as a student at Harvard) on May 26, stated on his site: “...Today we’re starting to roll out some changes…We’ve focused on three things: a single control for your content, more powerful controls for your basic information and an easy control to turn off all applications...Of course we'll continue responding to your feedback and making things simpler...If you have any questions or comments, let us know. We’re listening.”
Not all are impressed, though. While Prateek Shah, Online Evangelist at Blue Online believes that “the latest announcement from Mark Zuckerberg about the change in privacy issues has spelt relief for many worried users around the globe”, Murthy of Pinstorm says: “Facebook faces more pressure from the government on privacy issues than users. It simplified its privacy choices for users after recent opposition but as an indication of its unfriendly intent, left the default choice for all users to ‘all data visible to all.”
Online privacy advocate, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), also remains concerned despite the changes: “All of the new settings are positive steps toward giving Facebook users more control over the privacy of their data, directly responding to several of EFF’s criticisms…However, we still have some fundamental concerns about the amount of user information being shared with third-party Facebook applications and websites… Ultimately, Facebook must respect its own principles and users’ privacy rights by giving users full control over how all their information is shared.”
Facebook, incidentally, is not the only cyberspace giant to provoke the ire of data watchdogs. Google was censured for recording personal communication sent over unsecured Wi-Fi data networks in homes and offices in some 30 countries. Google had to apologise.
Nevertheless, Facebook remains very popular. In April, a comscore study revealed that 50.8 per cent of the total online population in the Asia-Pacific region visited a social networking site in February 2010, reaching a total of 240.3 million visitors. Facebook.com ranked as the top social network across the majority of individual markets in the region, while competing brands commanded the top position in certain markets, including Orkut in India, Mixi.jp in Japan, CyWorld in South Korea and Wretch.cc in Taiwan.
There are alternatives to Facebook, though, like a combination of services such as email, Twitter and Flickr. For some, a Ning group or a specialised social site such as Akoha might also be an option. Facebook protesters, meanwhile, wonder if their digital footprint will still be available on Facebook's database much after they unhook themselves from the site.