Manjoo: Making Facebook Private Is 'Oxymoronic'

Facebook has developed new privacy features and agreed to 20 years of independent audits of its privacy practices. Google and Twitter previously settled similar cases with the Federal Trade Commission. Farhad Manjoo argues that Facebook, or any social network, can never be truly private.

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

When you post those party photos to Facebook or tweet that snarky comment, do you ever think about all the places that information could go? Well, that's what privacy settings are for, right? Facebook recently agreed to make changes after the Federal Trade Commission charged the social network with deception for repeatedly allowing users' information to be shared publicly and with advertisers and developers. In similar circumstances, Twitter and Google made changes of their own. But technology columnist Farhad Manjoo argues that the very idea of making Facebook a more private place borders on the oxymoronic, that privacy and social media will never fit hand in hand, and to some degree, that's our own fault.

When did you realize there's no such thing as privacy in social media? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@.npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Farhad Manjoo joins us now from a studio in Palo Alto, and nice to have you back.

FARHAD MANJOO: Hi. Good to be here.

CONAN: And you argue Facebook users - you and me and four billion others - basically share the blame. We complain about the privacy programs, and very, very few of us actually go through with our threats to get off the service.

MANJOO: Oh, yeah. I mean, every year, for the past two, three years at least, you know, there's this huge privacy dustup over Facebook. They release some new feature that, you know, people justifiably get upset about, and then many people threatened to leave if Facebook doesn't shape up. Mark Zuckerberg issues an apology on the site, changes a few things but doesn't really retreat in any way. And then we all just kind of go back to using Facebook again.

And, you know, the site's growth sort of bears this out. I mean, no - none of these privacy dustups has ever kind of led to fewer people joining. They're - you know, they keep growing. More and more people just keep joining Facebook. And so, you know, I think in some - it's not untrue to say that some people talk about privacy, but they may not really care that much about it - enough, at least, to kind of do anything about it.

CONAN: A lot of people, though, will just send those party pictures to the people who were at that party and say, this is not intended for the entire list of friends.

MANJOO: Yeah. I mean, I think a number of people do that, but more and more we're seeing, you know, that the way people share photos - photos, especially - I mean the - kind of the biggest application on Facebook is photo-sharing - is that, you know, they regard Facebook as the place to do it rather than email. It's a way to kind of get it to all of their friends more easily. It won't get caught in spam folders, and then, you know, it's kind of out there. It's for, you know, all their friends to see whenever they want to.

CONAN: And, in essence, you argue that it's a social network. It's built to facilitate the exchange of things. Why should we be surprised when things get exchanged?

MANJOO: Yeah. I mean, I don't want to seem to defend Facebook's pretty lax attitude to privacy so far. I mean, I think they've made a number of changes now that are progressive, and this agreement they made with the FTC I think is a good step forward. And there are now tools on Facebook that are pretty good, pretty good way to protect your stuff on the site.

But there are - you know, those tools aren't foolproof. The site is still complicated. It's still difficult to figure out how - where your stuff is going, who's allowed to see it. And because of that, I think, people should regard the site as not especially private, like you - if you want to post a photo there that you want, you know, only your close friends to see it, but if anyone else saw it, it would ruin you, don't post it on Facebook because the chances that someone else will see it are pretty good.

So I think that the way to approach Facebook and all other sites on the Web, actually, is to think of them as a public forum, as a place where if you post something, potentially everyone you know and everyone beyond everyone you know will be able to see it.

CONAN: And it's one thing to do the head smack after you realize that the college admissions officer or the hiring official at the firm is going to go back and look at those party photographs on your Facebook site. It's another, though, if Facebook is somehow providing those to advertisers.

MANJOO: Yeah. So part of the FTC - one of the things the FTC charged Facebook with was providing some information and some personally identifiable information to advertisers. Facebook says that their actions there were a mistake. It was a bug, and they fixed that even before the FTC settlement that they just announced. What they do is, you know, they don't - the kind of normal practice for them is they don't share the information about you with an advertiser, but they will, kind of, offer advertisers ways to target ads to you.

So, you know, an advertiser will say, I want to reach everyone between these ages who likes this kind of music. And then, you know, if you fit into that demographic, you'll see that ad.

CONAN: We're with Farhad Manjoo, technology columnist for slate.com, talking, yet again, about privacy and the World Wide Web in various aspects. 800-989-8255. When did you realize that Facebook or other social media sites were pretty darn public? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Henry is on the line calling from Denver.

HENRY: Hi. I've always read that, you know, odd and kind of obscure things on the Internet. And it really hit home for me that the things that people post on any kind of a social network are probably not private and are probably going to be seen by everyone when I read the - a logged copy of what's allegedly the conversation in the early '80s, where people invented the emoticon. And this was something that had happened on a public bulletin board system, but it was allegedly also a very transient conversation.

So even though it was public, there wasn't the, you know, three months later, a persistent record where people could go read it for better or worse. And yet this was in the early to mid 2000s that I was reading this. And I realized, even when things are supposed to be private, are not. And so something that, by definition, social, like Facebook, that's going to be even less private, and it's treated accordingly. If you wouldn't put it on a bulletin board at a coffee shop, you might need to think twice about putting it on Facebook.

CONAN: Even if your enthusiasm - you'd think, oh, this is just ephemeral. Nobody's going to ever keep a copy of this.

HENRY: Exactly. And yet somebody probably will.

CONAN: Farhad, everybody keeps a copy of everything, don't they?

MANJOO: I mean, that's the other problem. It's very difficult...

HENRY: Actually, now the storage is cheap.

CONAN: Yeah. Storage is cheap, the cloud.

MANJOO: Yeah. It's difficult to erase something on the Internet, you know? So soon Facebook will unveil this tool, this new profile tool called Timeline, which is really well designed, and it's kind of a good way to curate your own profile. And as part of this, they say they're going to have a way for you to delete anything you've ever posted on Facebook. So even if it's something you've posted, you know, four years ago, you're looking through your Timeline and you discover that, you know, you don't want it up there anymore. It'll be easier for you to take that photo, offending photo, or blog post or whatever down.

But, you know, one of your friends could have copied that photo and put it on his Facebook page or put it on his own personal blog. Or it could, you know, been indexed by a search engine. It - anything you post on the Internet might be copied by any number of people and be sort of everywhere else. So that's the other thing. If you post something, taking it down is very difficult.

CONAN: Henry, thanks very much for the call.

HENRY: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we could go next to - this is Steven(ph). Steven with us from Detroit.

STEVEN: Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

STEVEN: Just sort of on that same vein. I graduated from Michigan State University in '09, and I've had a number of friends who were rejected from jobs or fired from jobs because of things that were private on their Facebook pages or MySpace pages that they never intended to be public. So some things that you intend to be public or private might not necessarily be that way.

CONAN: The laugh-a-minute picture of you with the lampshade on your head at that raucous party?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STEVEN: Something like that, yeah.

CONAN: Something like that. I think we probably need to go no further.

STEVEN: Yeah.

CONAN: And these stories, Farhad, are legion.

MANJOO: Oh, yeah. This...

STEVEN: Absolutely. I heard of a story of a teacher who got fired for a private picture of her drinking on her Facebook page that was not made public.

MANJOO: Yeah. I think there have been a number of teachers in that situation. And, you know, you can see why. I think that, you know, a number - everyone does - we all do things in private that, you know, are private for a reason, and we don't want the whole world to know. And if the whole world to know - does know, you know, they might frown upon us doing that thing even if other people do it.

I wonder if, you know, one of the things I think about with Facebook getting so, you know, central to our culture is I wonder if people's attitudes, especially employer's attitudes, will change over time if, you know, if every one of their job applicants has some morally questionable photos on their Facebook pages. Maybe it won't be so shocking anymore. You know, maybe at some point, you know, even every Supreme Court nominee will have something to hide on their Facebook page. And so, you know, it won't be such a big deal anymore. But we haven't reached that point yet, so you should still be careful.

CONAN: There's another way to turn that argument, though, just as some NFL players who failed drug tests coming back from the lockout, people who knew the drug tests were coming. People said, look, that wasn't really a drug test. That was a stupidity test, and you flunked. And so maybe...

MANJOO: Yeah, it's true.

CONAN: ...if you're job has a morals clause in it, posting those kinds of pictures anywhere, it's not - that's an intelligence test.

MANJOO: Right. The only problem with that is, you know, we all do things when we're 12, 13, 15, 17, you know, we might not want to hunt us when we're 40.

CONAN: Steven, thanks very much for the call.

STEVEN: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with slate.com technology columnist Farhad Manjoo. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And this tweet from JamieMcQ15(ph). This, of course, an answer to the question, when did you realize the privacy on the social networks was not really very private? That'd be when my aunt in another state downloaded and printed our pics to send us to - send us for Christmas. Surprise.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: And this - from Carol. Fellow Facebook users, we are not the customers. We are the product. Get real. Get over it. Is that an accurate way to think of it? Like the television networks delivering eyeballs to advertisers, are users on Facebook the product?

MANJOO: Oh, certainly. I mean, that's the whole business model. You know, I don't think that the people at Facebook think of it that way, and I think, you know, they're genuinely trying to build a site that appeals to people, but the kind of end goal of appealing to people is to get advertisers to come to the site, and, you know, they're doing very well with that. I mean, Facebook is a free service, and people don't have to use it. I think that's sort of, you know, something to keep in mind. If you really want to stay private, just don't put stuff on there or don't use it at all. But, you know, it's a perfectly fine place to put up stuff that, you know, you aren't - you wouldn't mind everyone else seeing.

CONAN: Let's go next Angela, Angela with us from Kansas City.

ANGELA: Hi. In regards to that question, I realize that Facebook was not private when this summer - I'm a teacher, and I was taking a graduate class this summer on social media. And my professor told us that - and I had no idea - that if we have ever logged into Facebook from a school computer or if we, you know, use our school email as our Facebook email account, then we, I guess, lose rights to it.

Basically, like, if human services was to ever call me in and, you know, have a question of something I posted on Facebook or a picture of me on Facebook, because I have - I've logged in using a school computer, they have access to my account. Like I would have to give them my password or face - I don't know if - what I would face, but I would not be in a good standing with them, I think. And there have been teachers I've known who have - that has happened to, not in my district, but in other district. It's - wow. It's scary.

CONAN: That's a very small portal. And, Farhad, I know that if you have a company email account and anything you write on that, the company can look at it. It's their property. But this small portal, if you ever logged on to Facebook through a school computer, they have access to everything you ever did on Facebook? Is...

ANGELA: That's - my professor told me, and I'm assuming it's true. I don't know. Maybe he knows.

CONAN: Have you heard that, Farhad?

MANJOO: You know, I have heard not specifically that, but I have heard of companies trying to essentially police their employees' Facebook use. And, you know, this is an interesting question because Facebook sort of straddles this line between, you know, it's a service for individuals, but it's individuals who have a public persona. And so they, you know, if I work for a company and I don't have a very reputable Facebook page, I reflect poorly on that company.

And so, you know, I think that a number of businesses are trying to sort of get a good balance here between allowing their employees, you know, to use these services but to not let them kind of hurt the business' reputation, or in the case of a school district, you know, to cause harm to come to the students or just the reputation of the district.

CONAN: Angela, click carefully, I think, is the answer. Thanks very much for the call. This email from Marcella in Houston: I realize the things on Facebook weren't private when my teen daughter had a picture pulled and copied from Facebook, and the person altered the picture and posted it for other students at the school to see. So many negative comments were placed to make fun of her weight on the altered picture, which placed her next to a hippopotamus, and the students would vote on who was heavier. This set her off onto a three-day crying spell and continued sadness. So it's not just professional consequences that can be caused by having pictures taken off your Facebook account.

MANJOO: Yeah. I mean, I think this is one of the main problems that Facebook is trying to deal with is that the way kids use it and especially the way it sort of interferes with very already rough social dynamics of being in high school. You know, Facebook is not - has kind of exacerbated all the worst parts of high school and, you know, for many people.

CONAN: Farhad Manjoo, nice to have you back.

MANJOO: Yeah, good. Thanks. Nice to be here.

Farhad Manjoo, technology columnist for slate.com. He joined us from a studio in Palo Alto. You can find a link to his piece, "It's Not All Facebook's Fault," on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Tomorrow, how to stop hazing in college marching bands, plus reading the tea leaves in Egypt's elections. Join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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