Unsell Yourself — A Protest Model Against Facebook – by “Max C.”

Facebook’s a monopoly that abuses its users: you and me. But we’re left without a way to retaliate. I propose a way to contaminate their database with false information, limiting the usefulness and resale value of our own information, while maintaining as much Facebook usefulness for the rest of us. It’s called Unsell Yourself, and I’d be honored if you’d give it a read.

[Edit: Reposted from my own blog in full, but formatting/CSS is better on my blog]

This is the story of how Facebook uses the information you put into it against you, and how you can unsell yourself. I believe Facebook is an exciting product and I hope that the company succeeds. But I also think Facebook’s monopoly has permitted them a business model which is bad for its users.

Not all stories of businesses harming their consumers begin with a man in a top hat, but it sure makes it easier to. Is Facebook a monopoly? Here’s a graph of Facebook’s web market share compared to hi5, friendster, orkut, linkedin, plaxo, & ning as assembled by Bill Tancer in 2007.

Since 2007, network effects have pushed Facebook into an even more dominant position. Facebook now claims that they have

More than 500 million active users
50% of our active users log on to Facebook in any given day
Average user has 130 friends
People spend over 700 billion minutes per month on Facebook

Alexa.com names Facebook the #2 top site in the world, with 42% of the world’s entire Internet population having visited Facebook. The next social network doesn’t come up until #17: LinkedIn, with a meager 4% of the world’s Internet population.

Here at Yale, in a recent poll of people connected with the class Control, Privacy and Technology (tech savvy 18–22 yr olds, generally), 98.9% of the respondents had a Facebook.

Obvious truth number one: Facebook is the most dominant social network. Facebook alone is in exclusive possession of 500 million people’s communications, demographic data, location, and social habits. Since I’m not even close to being familiar with the nuance of antitrust law, I’ll leave that speculation to other people, noting only that Wikipedia says that the Sherman Antitrust Act doesn’t forbid innocent monopolies, but only those who achieve their monopoly through misconduct.

How Facebook’s Monopoly Harms Users

You might be asking (reasonably), “So what, who cares?” that Facebook is a monopoly. But Facebook’s definitely not been perfect, and their monopoly has permitted them some egregious abuses of their users that a competitive environment would not have permitted. As many Internet-based businesses know, it’s very very dangerous to abuse your users: they’re fickle, and can change services easily by merely navigating to their browser bar. Just look at Digg versus Reddit. So why hasn’t Facebook suffered user base drops when they rolled-out despised changes, like a redesign (the irony of linking Gawker isn’t missed), less default privacy, or ever more tailored behavioral ads. (Full disclosure: I recently got a Facebook behavioral ad for “bedwetting”. Not really sure what I’m doing to signal that one.)

Recently, even spookier things have surfaced. Julian Assange noted that Facebook is an FBI agent’s wet dream:

Facebook in particular is the most appalling spying machine that has ever been invented. Here we have the worlds most comprehensive database about people, their relationships, their names, their addresses, their locations, their communications with each other, their relatives… all accessible to US Intelligence… [Yahoo, Google and Facebook] have built in interfaces for US Intelligence. It’s not a matter of serving a subpoena.

Facebook users should get a Miranda warning:

And Mark Zuckerberg likes looking at more than merely the data you post. By reading between the lines, he’s worked out an algorithm with 33% success rate for predicting who you’ll date next.

Why Users Don’t Quit

I don’t quit Facebook because Facebook is a valuable network, one that can’t be easily replaced. That’s the natural strength of a monopoly combined with Metcalfe’s network benefits, the nature of walled garden web platforms, and their inability to control and remove their own data from Facebook. Walled garden web platforms like Facebook with embedded APIs and developers, along with Facebook-specific applications mean that users can’t easily replace or extract what could be valuable data to them. In other words, quitting Facebook means quitting Farmville and all the other applications you use. As more and more websites use Facebook as the only login system (for the best example, see Canv.as), the web platform expands its power. These kinds of platforms also lead to a new, special kind of hurt of users: the AOL effect. Users’ lack of control over their Facebook data also makes it impossible to quit the platform. Not only is it truly impossible to delete messages (the delete button merely obscures them from user view, but enables them to be re-discovered via Facebook’s “Download Profile” tool and of course they remain on Facebook’s servers for subpoena or hackers and Facebook themselves, but it’s also impossible to pull Facebook contact information out of the roach motel. Even Google has lashed out against Facebook, criticizing Facebook’s design choice that makes users’ unable to export their data back out.

How Users Can Strike Back

Not a single user pays to use Facebook, and yet the company is valued at $50 billion dollars. Not bad: that means that of their users is worth $100, by my math! Which is to say that investors believe that your information, your time on the site, and your clicking is worth $100 to Facebook. To encourage a more competitive marketplace and discourage Facebook from abusing its users, there’s an easy way to reduce your value to Facebook while simultaneously reducing your legal vulnerability and privacy problems, without quitting Facebook, or even losing a valuable component of Facebook’s services!.

You keep all of your Facebook contacts, the ability to message or chat or use your wall and apps— but behavioral advertising, Facebook’s bread and butter dollar revenues and the short term thing that keeps them Wall Street’s darling— you can kill all of that just by adding a “Teen Vogue” to your interests. Or Teletubbies. Or Tiffany’s.

Here’s my current profile:

The trick is to populate your Facebook with just enough lies as to destroy the value and compromise Facebook’s ability to sell you. Collectively, users could use misinformation with “features” that they don’t like being used against them in order to guide Facebook’s future. (This is already done by FB’s user base with new some new features: Facebook places seems to effectively have been a flop. Among my 1000+ Facebook friends, only one person uses it.)

How Google is Different from Facebook

I’m wary of Google, but for now will say it’s not worth populating their data with false information yet, and not just because it’s harder. This stems from three major differences between Facebook and Google:
1. Long term monetization strategy
2. Competitors
3. Data Freedom

I don’t see Google’s long term monetization strategy being pimping your data out to the highest advertising bidder. That might be how you build a $50 billion dollar company, but it’s not a way to build a lasting $200 billion dollar company. Instead, I think they’re collecting data to get into a product development business via big data and simple algorithms.

Nor is Google’s monopoly even close to as complete as Facebook’s dominance. Bing apparently now has 29% of the search market, and Baidu won’t let up the Chinese market easily. There are innumerable competitors to Gmail, and they all have heavy user bases. Online documents is an area Microsoft won’t cede easily, since it’s one of their core products and one of their two sources of profit (Office). Mobile phones are obviously an extremely competitive arena, with RIM, Apple, Microsoft, and HP all fighting for OS market share in smartphones. And even in Google’s stronghold of display ads, Apple’s attacking (though the success of iAds remains to be seen).

Perhaps most important is that Google’s exportability of your data remains high. You aren’t locked in or integrated in the same way that Facebook joins all of your data to a persistent single identity, users can download calendars and quit Google Calendar or extract contacts onto a new framework. The integration also doesn’t lock users into Google: you can continue to use Google Docs even if you discontinue Gmail use.

Conclusion

Ultimately, I see inputting false data into Facebook’s “likes” pages a form of sit-in, a kind of CAPTCHA to prevent a Facebook data mining bot to freely pillage and extrapolate results from the data you put in to Facebook. It’s a good response in a scenario like today, where Facebook has a monopoly that almost everyone has to jump in on anyway, no matter how much they might be reluctant to. Hopefully though, the longer term solution is for a real competitor to emerge, offering users the things that they want, and the ability to migrate effortlessly from Facebook without paying Metcalfe’s prices. In the meantime, protect yourself and express a bit of discontent: unsell yourself from Facebook.

The Future of Control in Legislation: An Examination of Online Privacy Bills in the 112th Congress – by “Cynthia W”

As a final project for Brad Rosen’s Yale seminar—Control, Privacy, & Technology—we took on the task of close-reading and comparing four recently proposed online privacy bills. The inspiration from the project comes from President Obama’s recent historic call for a privacy bill of rights.

The proceeding chart is meant to present all of the bills’ key features, providing a sense of each bill’s thoroughness and effectiveness. Rather than coming up with our own ideas about what the ideal privacy bill should and should not include, we relied on the FTC’s principles as a guide.

After parsing all of the information presented in the bills into categories, we gave each section a score out of 10, based on how many of the FTC’s guidelines the bill adhered to. We gave each section an individual weight, based on how much emphasis the FTC puts on its relative importance. After coming up with this percentage score (points out of 10 multiplied by section weight), we gave each bill a traditional letter grade. We actually ended up curving the scores by adding 10 percentage points, because the highest grade turned out to be a B. While this does speak of the need for even better privacy legislation, we did feel that at least one of the bills received an A grade because it generally conformed with all FTC guidelines.

While the chart should speak for itself, we did want to point out a few interesting points that became apparent after combing through all of the data:

1) Notice how the bills became less strict over time. While H.R. 611 seems to be the bill which would be enacted in the FTC’s ideal world, one can infer (from the fact that there were no contributions reported) that it never got off the ground, perhaps because it was indeed overly idealistic.

2) At least a couple of the bills include exemptions which make them a lot less effective. For example, the Kerry-McCain bill includes an exemption for the use of information within the context of “established business relationships.” Many bloggers have written that this creates a special loophole for social networks, calling it the “Facebook Loophole.”

3) Notice the way that “sensitive data” gets redefined over and over again, becoming less strict. While the most stringent bill includes the protection of data such as biometric data or precise geo-location data, other bills make no mention of this, offering a lot less protection.

—Nadia Danford ’12 and Cynthia Weaver ’12

The Gavin Project – by “Julie S”

In Ontario v. Quon, Justice Scalia encouraged legislature to consider the difference in privacy expectations between laptops and cellphones and to do so quickly, considering law’s seemingly futile rat race against technology.  That brought us to the question that spurred The Gavin Project: what’s more private – our cellphones, email accounts or Facebook messages, and what particular tidbits and facets of our personality and will seep through each of the media we so depend on?

Who is Gavin? It depends where you look.

According to Google’s search engine, Gavin was born and raised in his hometown Townville where he lived his entire life. His mother is Margaret Project and his father is Richard Project. He has a terrier named Jake. At 18 years old, Gavin was publicly honored in his Townsville newspaper as having graduated first in his class.  In high school, Gavin participated in music, fine arts and political organizations. He hung out with friends at parks or local restaurants and enjoyed nerding out.

But a simple Google search won’t reveal the extent of Gavin’s romantic encounters, his music tastes, grades and questionably legal activity.  Each of Gavin’s technological media that most of society would regard as private – his cell phone, Facebook account, and Gmail account – exposed different aspects of Gavin’s private life. His Gmail said he liked the Decembrists.  His cellphone said he liked Avril Lavigne.

If in order to have privacy protection under our legal system we need to demonstrate a subjective expectation of privacy society is willing to recognize, our polled public showed that society was willing to protect each of these different media, and as such The Gavin Project consensually violated one man’s privacy.  We created dossiers of each of our different Gavins, examining what we could learn about him through each of the media.  Ultimately, each of the media revealed information many would consider personal and private.

Perhaps the more philosophical question should be where is the real Gavin? Is he most himself on Facebook, Gmail, or on his cellphone?  We encourage you to decide for yourself as you read and partake in the gross privacy violation that is The Gavin Project.  We can judge for ourselves which privacy violation is most revealing and disturbing for Gavin and in that way help answer Scalia’s normative question of which technological venues should require the most protection by deciding which venues we, society, are most willing to protect.

Check out www.thegavinproject.com and follow @theGavinProject on Twitter for updates.

Jeonghyun Kim – Class of 2011
Julie Shain – Class of 2013
Matthew Everts – Class of 2013
Michael Clemente – Class of 2011
Sebastian Park – Class of 2013
Zachary Maher – Class of 2013

Thaler’s Right: Data Ownership – by “Max C.”

This week’s iPhone controversy is a big deal, but it also could be a win for consumers. Normally, to find out the information about you that your carrier has already taken and is now selling to law enforcement agencies, you have to sue them in court— but with the iPhone, at least, you yourself also own a copy!

Was the iPhone location tracking file an egregious error, especially since they didn’t notify users? Probably. Will it be patched, never to be seen again in the next version of iOS? Probably. But that’s a bummer for people that like owning their own data.

Writes Richard Thaler in today’s NY Times:

If a business collects data on consumers electronically, it should provide them with a version of that data that is easy to download and export to another Web site. Think of it this way: you have lent the company your data, and you’d like a copy for your own use.

That sounds a lot like what you iPhone location file is. One of the stink bombs thrown up over this iPhone debacle is, “this information isn’t behind a firewall.” True— which means that YOU own it, instead of your phone company. Besides, lots of private information up behind a firewall just creates another juicy target for a hacker (a la Epsilon’s data breach). Are we really getting to the point where we don’t want users owning their own data because they’re so incompetent they might get hacked? Even Thaler’s semi-paternalistic book Nudge doesn’t go that far! Besides, as David Pogue points out,

The one legitimate concern, therefore, is that someone else with access to your computer could retrieve the information about your travels and see where you’ve been. Your spouse, for example. The researchers also mention “a private investigator,” but that’s a little silly. A PI is going to break into your house to inspect your iTunes backup? If your computer is that accessible, you’ve got much bigger problems.

Most likely, the only person that is really that fascinated about you is… well, you. Pogue again:

Meanwhile, accept it: Yes, Big Brother is watching you. But he’s been watching you for years, well before the iPhone log came to light, and in many more ways than you suspect.

And you know what? I’ll bet he’s bored to tears.

The Evolution of Facebook Privacy – by “Michael C”

Facebook. The social network. The site that we all (well, most of us) use and love (or tolerate, at least). The site that some of us even name our babies after. Since its inception in 2005, Facebook has gone through an evolution that has moved it from being a networking site shared amongst students at Harvard to a global phenomenon used by 1 out of every 13 people in the world. For me, it’s more difficult than it should be to remember past versions of the site. I’ve been on Facebook since May 2007 (a few months before I started college), but when I think of the way Facebook looks, I can only recall the current design.

Old Facebook profile
I think this is how it looked before the recent changes…I honestly can’t really remember.

Anyway, every time that Facebook performed a revamp of its site, they also made a less apparent change—they adjusted the default privacy settings. This is important as many people on Facebook have probably never checked their privacy settings and just accept the default settings, whatever they may be. In that sense, it’s very interesting to think about how Facebook has changed the default privacy settings over time. Just like the old site interfaces, it’s difficult for me to recall old Facebook privacy options and defaults. Luckily, there are a number of informative sites that do just that.

About a year ago, Kurt Opsahl of the EFF wrote an informative article entitled “Facebook’s Eroding Privacy Policy: A Timeline” which gives us an idea of how Facebook’s privacy policy has changed over time. The differences become pretty apparent when you compare the 2005 privacy policy:

“No personal information that you submit to Thefacebook will be available to any user of the Web Site who does not belong to at least one of the groups specified by you in your privacy settings.”

to the privacy policy from April 2010:

“When you connect with an application or website it will have access to General Information about you. The term General Information includes your and your friends’ names, profile pictures, gender, user IDs, connections, and any content shared using the Everyone privacy setting. … The default privacy setting for certain types of information you post on Facebook is set to “everyone.” … Because it takes two to connect, your privacy settings only control who can see the connection on your profile page. If you are uncomfortable with the connection being publicly available, you should consider removing (or not making) the connection.”

If the change isn’t apparent enough from the text, Matt McKeon created a handy infographic that illustrates how Facebook’s default privacy settings have changed over time. You should go to his site to see the full interactive infographic, but take a look at the difference between 2005 and April 2010:

Evolution of Facebook Privacy
Woah.

The changes are clear, and to be honest, somewhat alarming. Currently, the majority of the information found in one’s profile—one’s wall posts, photos, likes, etc.—is visible to the entire internet by default. Only friends can see one’s contact information, but Facebook would have no privacy whatsoever if contact information was available to everyone. However, with so much other information out there in the public, it is entirely possible that someone could still glean one’s contact info from the site. As Facebook has expanded, becoming not just a site for Harvard students to interact on but a site for literally everyone to interact on, it seems logical that Facebook might increase the default privacy settings, as there are many more people with access to the site that one would want to keep their information private from. Back when the only people on Facebook were your classmates, having conservative privacy defaults probably was not as big of an issue as it is now, when anyone in the world can use Facebook.

Of course, not all of these changes are Facebook being evil; rather, it seems that some of them are the result of Facebook simply being ambivalent about one’s privacy. A lot of the expansion in the infographic comes from the fact that Facebook’s audience has greatly expanded since 2005. Back in 2005, there was no such thing as a “public profile” that everyone on the internet could see—you were either on Facebook (and you could only get access if you were in a select group of people) or you weren’t. As Facebook has opened up to more and more people, rather than “pulling back” on privacy settings to maintain the privacy that Facebook had when it was much more exclusive, Facebook has simply let privacy slide along with the site’s access. Perhaps this is due to Mark Zuckerberg’s lack of understanding about people’s desire for privacy. Even in Time’s “Person of the Year” article about Zuckerberg, it said “Zuckerberg has a talent for understanding how people work, but one urge, the urge to conceal, seems to be foreign to him….Sometimes Zuckerberg can sound like a wheedling spokesman for the secret police of some future totalitarian state. Why wouldn’t you want to share? Why wouldn’t you want to be open — unless you’ve got something to hide? ‘Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity,’ Zuckerberg said in a 2009 interview with David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect.”

Zuckerberg’s comments stand in stark contrast with the themes of our class. This week, we read Warren and Brandeis’s The Right to Privacy, which states “The intensity and complexity of life, attendant upon advancing civilization, have rendered necessary some retreat from the world, and man, under the refining influence of culture, has become more sensitive to publicity, so that solitude and privacy have become more essential to the individual; but modern enterprise and invention have, through invasions upon his privacy, subjected him to mental pain and distress, far greater than could be inflicted by mere bodily injury.” The real question is, can we use Facebook and cell phones and all the other facets of the modern age and still maintain our privacy? Naturally, we must be willing to give up some privacy simply by virtue of using a “social networking” site. Yet, at the same time, we shouldn’t have to give up more privacy than necessary. Perhaps Facebook shouldn’t be allowed to use an opt-out system of privacy, where most of a user’s profile is shared with the entire internet by default and the burden of selecting more restrictive privacy settings is placed on users. Perhaps, through legislation, we can put the burden on corporations like Facebook, so that the default behavior of the site is in users’ best interests, not Facebook’s. After all, Facebook is a social networking site, existing for the people who use it to communicate and connect; it has no one but its millions of users to thank for its success.

It’s 5:00. Do you know where your iOS device is? Because Apple does. – by “Evin M”

Today, Alasdair Allen and Pete Warden announced that “[e]ver since iOS 4 arrived, your device has been storing a long list of locations and time stamps.”  Your device’s longitude and latitude have been recorded hundreds of thousands of times with timestamps getting backed up to iTunes, transferred to new devices and restored across backups.  It’s not encrypted, it’s not protected, and it’s pretty easy to access.

A visualization of iPhone location data, from Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden

Let’s recall US v. Maynard, a 2010 case where FBI agents planted a GPS tracking device on a car when the car was on private property, and then recorded its location every ten seconds for a month without obtaining a warrant.  The US Court of Appeals for D.C. held that obtaining such information required a search warrant, and rejected the Bureau’s claims that their actions didn’t constitute a search.  The Bureau cited US v. Knotts, in which police used a beeper device to track the discrete movements of a suspected conspirator’s car over a limited period of time.  In this case’s opinion, the court only addressed the use of such tracking technology for a single car trip–not limitless access to GPS data, regardless of previously specified time or place.

Accessing aggregated GPS data in an investigation constitutes a search and requires a warrant.  However, we’re only familiar with this situation when a third party is seeking that location data.  What’s unique about Apple as the original collector?  They’re not going after data collected by another party–it’s a function built into the software, and it’s covered in the terms of service.

Indeed, Apple’s iOS 4 TOS says

To provide location-based services on Apple products, Apple and our partners and licensees may collect, use, and share precise location data, including the real-time geographic location of your Apple computer or device. This location data is collected anonymously in a form that does not personally identify you and is used by Apple and our partners and licensees to provide and improve location-based products and services. For example, we may share geographic location with application providers when you opt in to their location services.

So what’s next?  The blogosphere is feeling squeamish, but is that the extent of the response? Thoughts, guys?

As an aside, Apple’s capitalizing upon the buzz with advertisements on Google, perhaps employing the same publicity tactics that BP did, post-oil-spill (I blogged about it here). I’d be interested to see if the content of these word-triggered ads changes to be more actively positive in Apple’s favor as more eyebrows are raised in response to this latest discovery.

The Viability of Free Software – by “Dennis H”

Moglen: The Theory of Free Software

Eben Moglen lays out a grand vision for the incipient changes to the landscape of intellectual property. His paper concludes with little difficulty that free software as epitomized by the GNU/Linux model is both more efficient and less restrictive than the software dominion of Microsoft that characterizes the status quo. Moglen gives an historical argument for why free software is bound to succeed with his claim that “legal regimes based on sharp but unpredictable distinctions among similar objects are radically unstable.” As for the presently existing standards of the current legal regime, “Parties will use and abuse them freely until the mainstream of ‘respectable’ conservative opinion acknowledges their death, with uncertain results.” Intellectual property is bound to change, he prophesies. At the rhetorical summit of this vision, he even tells a New York Magazine reporter, “The people who have short-term needs for more money and more power are an ancient regime on the verge of being swept away.”

Moglen’s theoretical-historical understanding of current trends in intellectual property — and software ownership in particular — is on point. Things do need to change, and at a certain point they will change. But Moglen’s arguments leave open the question of how and when these changes will take place. Moglen offhandedly proposes the image of a “bellum servile of couch potatoes against media magnates.” Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, but the image raises the question … is the notion of free software actually catching on? It’s clearly catching on with some geeks and law professors, but is it catching on with the public at large? In the lingo of Diaspora*’s consultancy firm: free software jives with the beards, but can it work for the girls?

Linux: The Bellwether for Free Software

Consider Linux. The open source operating system is the poster-child for the past, present, and future of the free software movement. Engineered in 1991 by Linus Torvalds, Linux has indeed made considerable inroads en route to its ultimate goal of world domination (or, toppling Microsoft). Most importantly, Linux currently powers over 60% of the world’s top 500 supercomputers, including the 10 fastest supercomputers in the world, a testament to its high-performance efficiency. Less importantly, but still indicative of increasing popularity, the government of Brazil has recently given Linux its official endorsement. “What interests the government is to give options, to give alternatives to the proprietary — to the almost monopolistic — domain,” said Brazil’s secretary general of science and technology in 2008. Other endorsements have come from the Russian military, the Chinese technology independence initiative, the Indian state of Kerala, and even the likes of France and Germany.

On the other hand, various sources estimate the desktop market share of Linux from less than 1% to 4.8%, while Microsoft maintains more than 85% of the market. According to Wikipedia, in terms of the usage share of web client operating systems, Linux sits at a minuscule 1.65%, in comparison with 81.97% for Windows OSs and 9.27% for Macs.

What will happen to Linux in the future? It has certainly grown by leaps and bounds over the past two decades, but while it has cornered the market for supercomputers and won the hearts of tech-savvy nerds around the world, it has yet to gain a strong hold on the general public in the United States. If and how Linux will overcome the Microsoft monopoly remain to be seen.

Diaspora*: The Viability of Baby Steps

But what about other “free software” efforts? Consider the makers of Diaspora*, who take Moglen as a primary source of inspiration. The Diaspora* crew see themselves as working towards Moglen’s grandiose vision of future digital communities — only, by a more immediate and pragmatic pathway. “[Moglen] sees way into the future,” says Max Salzberg, “We really like that conception, but there’s got to be a baby step.” The relevant baby step, says teammate Ilya Zhitomirskiy, is that “we want to move people from websites that are not healthy, to websites that are more healthy, because they’re transparent.” In particular, the makers of Diaspora* want to move traffic away from the perennial privacy villains Facebook, and onto their own, open, decentralized social network.

Is Diaspora* a viable project? Can it compete with Facebook for social networkers around the world? Needless to say, Facebook possesses one advantage that may prove to be insurmountable: the enormous inertia of its 600 million current users. Diaspora* will have a tough time recruiting Facebook users when they must abandon their present abode, leaving behind them the critical mass of friends and contacts already registered on Facebook.

Diaspora* can, however, offer a number of things that Facebook cannot. Share what you want, with whom you want, says its homepage, in stark contrast to Facebook’s offer to give you: “spying — for free!” Specifically, Diaspora* claims that it offers three innovations to the social network model: (1) choice, by which users can sort their contacts and share particular information with the precise audience of their choice; (2) ownership, by which users can maintain their claims to anything posted on the site; and (3) simplicity; by which privacy options are straightforward and transparent to users at every point. All three are significant improvements on Facebook.

Diaspora* certainly delivers on these promises — just set up an account and see for yourself — and what’s more, it even makes the effort to smooth users’ transitions from their Facebook accounts. For instance, while you can’t friend someone on Facebook via Diaspora*, you can now post Facebook status updates via your Diaspora* account.

So will Diaspora* succeed, over the next few years, in wooing the Facebooking masses? It’s certainly possible, especially when people start to realize that Facebook (a) isn’t all that special, and (b) isn’t all that great with its users’ privacy. As Moglen points out, Facebook’s promise essentially amounts to, “I will give you free web hosting and some PHP doodads and you get spying, for free, all the time.” This is not a very attractive offer, when stated in such stark terms. As Diaspora* collaborator Rafi Sofaer puts the thought, “We don’t need to hand our messages to a hub. What Facebook gives you as a user isn’t all that hard to do. All the little games, the little walls, the little chat, aren’t really rare things. The technology already exists.”

Whether Diaspora* flourishes or crumbles over the next two years remains to be seen. But at the very least, the young networking site has one deep-pocketed friend: Mark Zuckerberg himself. “I think it is a cool idea,” said Zuckerberg, who donated an undisclosed amount to the project. He admires the group, he says, in part because he sees “a little of myself in them.” Whether his donation was a gesture of condescension, a public relations gambit, or a genuine statement of support will remain a mystery, but the thought of Diaspora* as a new-and-improved Facebook in the making is certainly an exciting one.

The Ultimate Showdown: Blumenthal v. Craigslist – by “Thad D”

“Seeking Partner In Crime”

“looking for fun”

“Looking for some ACTION!!!!!!”

Ranging from apparently harmless to incredibly graphic, the “Adult Services” section of Craigslist has long provided people far and wide with the ability to search for and find others looking for “adult services”, whatever that may mean.  That is, until last week, when Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, along with 17 other state attorneys general, told Craigslist to permanently remove their adult services section worldwide.

Before delving into the obvious issues with censoring Craigslist (net neutrality, questions of jurisdiction, website application immunity), it’s important to understand what Craigslist is and its history.  Founded in 1995 by Craig Newmark, Craigslist is a website that serves as a sort of virtual bulletin board for local postings.  With subdomains for major metropolitan areas around the world, users can post solicitations for anything from old TV’s, to job inquiries, to requests for relationships.  Listed as the most used classifieds service in any medium, Craigslist sustains its operating revenue mostly from small fees required to post job openings in major metropolitan areas.  The site’s annual net income is undisclosed.

However, the seemingly noble intentions of Craigslist have not stopped many from abusing its site.  For example, in early 2009, Julissa Brisman, a young masseuse, was murdered in a hotel room by a man who hired her through Craigslist.  Then, earlier this year James Sanders, a father and devout Christian, was gunned down in his home by criminals who responded to an ad he posted on Craigslist to sell his wife’s diamond ring. (Credit to NBC and NewsRoomJersey)

Three weeks ago, 17 state attorneys general jointly wrote to Craigslist telling owner Craig Newmark to permanently remove its adult services section worldwide.   Two weeks after that, four other private, Washington D.C. based non-profit organizations spoke out about their disapproval of the site’s adult services. In response, this past week Craigslist put a black and white “CENSORED” bar where the adult services hyperlink had previously been.  However, as of today, the black and white bar has officially been removed and there is no adult services section on the site’s home page.

Craigslist Adult Services Section Censored
Wait, You Didn't Want to Remove Your Adult Services Section?

So, now that we’re all on the same page, I would like to throw something out there: I believe Richard Blumenthal is putting up this huge front in order to be elected to the U.S. Senate.  What?  “No!” You cry out, “This cannot be!”  Well, consider the following conversation between two average voters:

Joe the Plumber: Gosh, the Senate election is coming up, soon.
Bob the Builder: Well, who’s running?
Joe the Plumber: Looks like it’s **Googles for ten seconds** Linda McMahon and Richard Blumenthal.
Bob the Builder: Wasn’t she a wrestler?  And who is Richard Blumenthal?
Joe the Plumber: I don’t know.  But apparently **Googles for five more seconds** Blumenthal is really against prostitution and human trafficking on Craigslist.  And Linda McMahon never said she didn’t like prostitution or human trafficking.  Looks like I know who I’m voting for.
Bob the Builder: I second that.  I am no fan of the Internets or prostitution.

Take it for what it is, that is my personal opinion.  Beyond the questions of political pandering and insincerity raised by the timing of his attack on Craigslist, Blumenthal’s offensive raises several other important issues.  Unfortunately, I do not have time to discuss all of them, but I would like to discuss what I think is the most important: net neutrality.

What do we mean when we use the term net neutrality?  Generally network neutrality means that for any network (be it peer to peer or the Internet), the principal service provider (i.e. Comcast, Charter), the government, or any other regulatory body should have no right to censor the content posted by members of the network.  In fact, the original design choices of this Internet such as decentralization and the FCC’s Broadband Policy Statement lend the Internet to being an open, neutral network.

Blumenthal and the attorneys general joining his suit are directly challenging the fundamentals of net neutrality by forcing Craigslist to remove its adult services section.  I want to make a very clear and unequivocal distinction.  Telling Craigslist it needs to seek out and remove postings soliciting illegal activities such as prostitution or human trafficking is NOT challenging net neutrality.  Without the rule of law, the Internet would become a safe haven for criminals and create an environment no one would feel comfortable entering.  However, Craigslist should not be told to remove a whole section because certain users abuse the site’s services.

If users demanded content controlled by a single source, with government interference and site material changing based on mere political whims, everyone would still be getting their Internet content from Compuserve.  Think I’m wrong?  Why do we have Google, Facebook, MySpace, Amazon, ESPN.com, streaming video of any sort (thanks porn industry), or all of the amazing web applications we have today?

For now, Blumenthal will not let sleeping dogs lie.  Although Craigslist has removed the whole adult services section Blumenthal insists, “Simply removing one portion of your site where you permitted and profited from prostitution ads is insufficient if ads go elsewhere.”  (Credit to The Associated Press)

Vinton Cerf, father of net neutrality and, the best thing it brings with it, competition on a previously unparalleled scale, we salute you.  Richard Blumenthal may be thinking that Craigslist is “thumbing their nose at the public interest”, but let’s be honest: since when did a 64 year old whose alma maters include Yale and Harvard ever represent the public interest?

Facebook Business Model 2.0: Infringe Now, Ask Questions Later – by “Thad D”

Well This Zucks...

Welcome to the new business model: infringe on your privacy first, ask questions later.  Now before I fully delve into the issue of Facebook’s new user privacy settings, I should note that I have always been a proponent of Facebook’s right to pursue what it feels is a profitable and satisfying business model.   Capitalism at its finest.  I have defended Facebook using what I have termed “The McDonald’s Defense”.  Often, consumers demand that businesses comply with outrageous orders.  For example, consider the following conversation:

McDonald’s Employee: Welcome to McDonald’s, may I take your order?

Customer:  Yes, hi.  I would like to order, uhm, a large double unsaturated soy mocha float, and two uncooked vegan tofu gluten-free eggs.

McDonald’s Employee:  Uh, sir, we don’t sell those-

Customer:  Oh and could those eggs be fried in omega-3 monopolyunsaturated fats from a Komodo dragon?

McDonald’s Employee:  **Confused Look**  May I help the next customer?

Of course, such a scenario seems ridiculous, but I use it to illustrate the fact that McDonald’s (i.e. Facebook) has the right to refuse service based on what it offers.  If you don’t like the way Facebook organizes its privacy controls, or any of its other features, go to Burger King (maybe, MySpace?).

But, what happened to me the other day was not a matter of asking for unreasonable privacy controls, but rather having my privacy infringed upon with a deceptive “opt-out” system.  Facebook now has a new “Instant Personalization” feature that allows partner websites to access personal information stored on Facebook’s servers without you knowing.  That’s right: FACEBOOK GAVE NO NOTICE OF THIS SERVICE, the only “warning” they gave was a small blue box at the top of each person’s home page that said privacy settings had changed.  Only after clicking “Learn More…” and digging to the very last section did I discover the feature.  Then, when I tried to disable it, I was confronted with the following confirmation page:

The More You Share, The More You Care (For Facebook's Wallet?)

Note that, although I have some of the strictest privacy settings on Facebook (no public search and the only things people who aren’t my friends can do are message me or add me as a friend), I was automatically opted into this Instant Personalization module.

So Facebook, where does that leave us?  You’re probably right, the “richness of the social interaction” from these new features is probably worth the hassle of a slight loss of anonymity because they provide so much convenience.  But why make it so hard to opt out?  Why not notify us about these changes?  WHAT INFORMATION ARE YOU GLEANING FROM THESE PROGRAMS THAT MAKE YOU WANT US TO PARTICIPATE SO BADLY?  WHAT IS “THE MAN” PAYING YOU?

Please, Mark Zuckerberg, get back to me on that.  You know how to reach me: just add “Thaddeus Diamond” as a friend, and click “Share”!