Many parents help their kids lie to get on facebook. No big deal, right?

In the past couple of weeks, two very rich studies focusing on the online behavior of young people have been released. One of them is entitled “Why parents help their children lie to Facebook about age,” co-authored by four of the leading thinkers on online privacy, access and the roles kids play on the internet.

 

The other is from the Pew Internet and American Life Project and is entitled “Teens, kindness and cruelty on social network sites.”

I want to focus a bit more on the first study first, and leave the second study for another blog post. I would urge you to click on both links and peruse each of them, as they are rich in substance and fact.

 

Children under 13 are supposedly protected by COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) a Clinton-era law passed in 1998 meant to keep marketers from targeting or collecting information about kids. The law went into effect in 2000, when the internet was a very different place before the explosion of social networking sites, Skype or even GMail. Not that anyone has probably read them, but all of these services have lengthy terms of service agreements which, among lots of other things, are supposed to prevent kids from signing up for them if they’re under 13.

 

In reality what is happening is the very thing that COPPA was meant to prevent: kids are signing up for facebook and other services in droves, very often with their parents’ consent and, in many cases, their explicit help. Many parents are either unaware of COPPA or, worse yet, think that the 13-year old ban is more of a guideline and not a hard and fast regulation. A typical parental response to helping their kids get around the ban goes something like, “My child is mature enough to handle it.” To a large degree, parents feel that they should be the ones to decide how their kids participate online.

 

Fair enough. But the real takeaway from the report for me was the one I suspect is doing the most long-term damage. When parents help their kids get around these restrictions, they are normalizing lying. As danah boyd, one of the authors of the study, recently revealed on NPR’s On the Media, “I was aghast to watch how often law enforcement comes in during assemblies and tells kids that in order to be safe online, they should actually lie about their location. So kids are hearing messages all around them that lying is both the way to get access and the way to be safe online.”

 

Clearly the COPPA mandated requirements are inadequate for today’s online landscape. So, then, what is the solution to keeping kids from being marketed to or otherwise tracked online by advertisers or others? What are some of the consequences to lying either to get online or lying once you’re already there?

 

boyd further notes that “…a huge number of kids actually say they’re from Afghanistan or Zimbabwe, which are the countries alphabetically at the top and the bottom of the possible countries you could be from.” It’s kind of a funny anecdote, but one that, I think,  has far-reaching implications.

 

What do you think of all this? Have you helped your kids circumvent any ToS agreements like the ones on Facebook, GMail or Skype? Is it really no big deal? Please leave a comment in the comments section. I’m curious to hear what you have to say.

Not another facebook privacy rant. Actually, no.

Facebook is everywhere. If it’s not a story about its gargantuan user base, it’s Oscar buzz about the film “The Social Network.” Recently the talk has been about its pending, or not pending, IPO and the massive influx of cash it recently received. Through it all runs the ever present discomfort over facebook’s often cavalier attitude towards privacy that makes some users blanch and might be the factor that keeps non-users from becoming users.

But that’s not what this post is about.

I am beginning to have an issue with the ubiquity of facebook for a slightly different reason. facebook’s strongest selling point might be its ease of use. Its basic features are drop dead simple, and once you have mastered the basics, there are only a few nuances that catapult you into the elite echelon of “power user.” Let’s face it: technology is scary to many people and an impediment to the success of scores of great ideas down through the ages. But technology, and I am using the term broadly to include everything from running water to the printing press to space travel, has been the catalyst for every significant social, cultural and economic shift in human history. But there will always be a segment of society which finds technology daunting enough to reject it outright. (From those with clocks perpetually flashing 12:00am on their VCRs to touchtone phone holdouts, Luddites unite!)

Enter facebook and, more specifically, facebook Pages for businesses. With a few clicks, you can have your business up and running on facebook and in front of their 500-million strong user base. And, why not? The opportunity to reach your customers directly, generate leads to attract new ones, address customer service concerns, improve your Google ranking, etc etc etc. And all without having to know about writing code or hiring someone to maintain your website. Sounds pretty good, right?

But, at what cost?

I return to the privacy and, more broadly, control issues touched on above and in other posts here and here. All facebook pages look, feel and function pretty much the same, which makes it harder to separate your business from the pack. Access to the social web was supposed to be the great playing field leveler, theoretically allowing a local soda producer to compete with Coca-Cola. If all websites begin to look, feel and function the same and are controlled by the same gate keeper, well, I think you see where it might lead.

I recognize that for some businesses having a facebook page might be their only point of access to the world wide web, and for them a presence on facebook is likely an invaluable boon to their business. After all, there’s no dollar cost to set one up, although the cost in time and effort can be significant. I think that making your business more social should be one more arrow in your marketing quiver, if possible, not the whole marketing/customer service arsenal.

Facebook has a history of making arbitrary changes to its terms of service, it has shut down Pages and their customer service is virtually non-existent. For a small business, setting yourself apart from the rest is the key to success. Controlling your presence online is critical, too.

facebook and the losing battle over privacy

So facebook doesn’t seem to care about your privacy. Until they do. Or, do they? Kind of hard to tell. The people who run the service that was pitched to all of us a few years back as a semi-private club where we would have control of who saw our photos, status updates and hackneyed inspirational quotes have now, for the fourth or fifth time, moved the goal posts on what constitutes “privacy.”

Finally, on May 26, facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was forced to address the frenzy whipped up online and off over what many perceived as a sneaky attempt to manipulate people’s information. Past attempts have stirred up a storm among the digerati and have been mostly confined to blog posts and tweets. This time, however, it landed on the front page of the New York Times which for an internet business can only mean two things: you have stopped being cool because the stodgy Times found out about you OR because you did something bad/stupid/illegal or some combination of the three.

This is not the first time they have done this, nor the first time I have written about it. But for some reason, THIS time it is really freaking people out, and not just the techie geekerati. So what is at the heart of the problem, and what can be done?

facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg firmly believes two things:  1)  the web is making us all more open and that privacy is an illusion and 2) facebook is on a mission to transform they way we all interact with the web. Facebook wants to be the center of our digital lives, the starting point of our engagement with the internet. facebook believes that “By making the world more open and connected, we’re expanding understanding between people and making the world a more empathetic place.” Oh, brother.

The hue and cry was so intense about their ham-handed changes, that Zuckerberg was forced to acknowledge their mistakes and offer up different settings options for users. The previous privacy settings had 50 pages of clicking and over 170 possible permutations. Who the hell is going to go to all that trouble? That, of course, is EXACTLY what they were counting on- that few of us would.

So, is facebook evil, stupid or crazy like a fox? The truth is, there is not as much of a business for them in only being a place for you to upload your photos and provide status updates as there is in collecting massive amounts of data about their users which can then be used to earn advertising income by more effectively targeting those ads based on your online activities and expressed interests.

If you believe their  numbers, facebook has over 400 million active users, two thirds of whom live outside of the US, but the privacy features are explained in ENGLISH ONLY. So many users have invested so much of themselves (ourselves) into the service that simply quitting facebook is not really a viable option. And even if we did, what would become of all those pictures, videos, intellectual ramblings, etc.? facebook would tell you that they are simply reflecting the change in people’s attitudes about privacy. I have seen no evidence of that. Rather, I would suggest that they are forcing change in order to be able to better target advertising and make more money. The truth is, given the choice, human beings typically opt for convenience over privacy.

(Side note: the implication here is that young people don’t care about their privacy. Zuckerberg himself is only 26, and that may very well be his personal ethos. Yet a Pew Reserch Center study released on May 26, 2010 about reputation management and social media found that 71% of social network users aged 18-29 have changed their privacy setting on their profile to limit what they share with others online. “Reputation management has now become a defining feature of online life for many internet users, especially the young.” Here’s a link to the survey.)

For those who were freaked out by this latest breach, I think the main reason is that  our privacy has been under assault from so many quarters, and that is a real concern for many of us. From illegal wire tapping and circumvention of FISA to self-inflicted revelations in public fora, many of us face a constant push-pull over how much to reveal and the harm it may inflict. When I say “harm,” I don’t necessarily mean physical harm, although there are many heartbreaking stories of physical harm. It could be embarrassment, getting caught in a lie, or just forgetting that you are sometimes speaking to a broader audience. But these missteps feel manageable because we realize that WE were the ones that made a mistake by revealing too much. It’s quite a different, and creepy, feeling when someone ELSE reveals our personal information without our informed consent. Betrayal is tough to come back from. Unless you’re facebook and no one seems to give a damn.

For all intents and purposes, facebook has no competition and, as danah boyd points out, the deeper a relationship, the higher the cost of ending it. So what can be done? Not much, I’m afraid. Stay on top of the changes (because this WILL happen again. And again.), and remain ever mindful of what your goals and objectives are when you join an online club.

As always, I would love to hear your comments.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

On privacy, or Why facebook is not your friend

I have long believed that privacy is an illusion, a sort of opiate for the masses. “Trusted” companies have collected our  credit/debit card records, telephone calls and text messages for years. Now it’s the archiving of facebook, twitter and foursquare updates, blogs posts and comments…and on it goes.

On the one hand we expect a certain degree of privacy, on another hand we willfully give it up and on a third hand (warning: this post is not anatomically correct), we cry “foul” when we feel our privacy has been violated. Like 99.9% of all matters internet related, none of this is new. Ma Bell always knew who you called and Visa always knew what you bought and where and when you bought it. The magnetic stripe on the back of your driver’s license probably knows who you took to the prom, for God’s sake.

Living your life online brings the fear (hysteria?) of privacy loss into sharper focus even though, in many cases, we ourselves are to blame for that loss. I would argue that “they” have long known lots more about you than you probably want to think about. Haven’t you ever watched “Law and Order”? Cell records, swiped ID cards, 7-11 debit card receipts- that’s how Jerry Orbach poked holes in your lame alibi and Sam Waterston put you away in the second act.

facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg recently, in a very offhanded and arrogant  manner, declared that the new default (non) privacy settings on facebook reflected new “social norms” and so “we just went for it.” Let me translate that for you:  a service that is used by 350 million people worldwide just made a profound change, a complete 180,  in how your information, posts, pictures, comments, videos, etc. are protected and they didn’t even bother to check with you first. They just “went for it.” (Read more here)

Awesome, dude.

Of course, you can go into your privacy settings at the top of your page and revert back to the way things were. But how many of you reading my little blog are hearing about this change for the first time? Further, one of the founding principles of facebook that kept us all coming back was that you could rightly assume that your updates, pictures and stuff were only being seen by your “friends” (another word that facebook has rendered meaningless, but that is another blog post).

This is not an anti-facebook rant, regardless of the what is contained in the previous paragraphs. I will say, however, facebook is dead wrong about this policy and may suffer the consequences. Their misguided and tin eared policy shift is akin to positing “if you don’t want someone to see you doing something bad, maybe you shouldn’t do it.” Uh huh. This illogical rejoinder is most often utilized by governments in the former Soviet Union, North Korea and more than once by the previous crew in Washington (and probably the current one, too). Privacy does not just mean secrecy, but that reductive logic is part of the price we pay in these anti-intellecutal times we live in. This “argument” in defense of “openness” renders context meaningless.

As regular readers of this blog already know, I am big fan of the author Chuck Klosterman. I read something the other day in his book “Eating the Dinosaur” that encapsulated the current state of affairs and maybe, just maybe, helps share the blame for this so-called “loss of privacy.”

“…I’m not sure that we aren’t seeing the emergence of a society in which almost everyone who isn’t famous considers themselves cruelly and unfairly unheard. As though being famous, and the subject of wide attention, is considered to be a fulfilled human being’s natural state- and so, as a corollary, the cruelly unheard millions are perpetually primed and fired up to answer any and all questions in order to redress this awful imbalance.

I fear that most contemporary people are answering questions not because they’re flattered by the attention; they’re answering questions because they feel as though they deserve to be asked. About everything. Their opinions are special, so they are entitled to a public forum. Their voice is supposed to be heard, lest their life become empty.

This, in one paragraph (minus technology), explains the rise of New Media.