Free speech and free beer

Facebook is in the news in both the UK and the USA for its dealings with Cambridge Analytica, in which Facebook users’ personal information was handed over to the political consultancy firm. There are a couple of problems with the way this is being reported in the media.

  • We, as mere users of Facebook, are not Facebook’s customers. We are its products. We refer to Facebook as a ‘service’ because we tend to think of it in much the same way as we think of the fire service, the armed forces or the NHS. But of these four things, only one of them is privately owned and largely unregulated.
  • This was not a data breach, it was a data leak if not a data transfer.
  • I haven’t read Facebook’s terms of use in any detail recently, but its almost certain that they permit this sort of data transfer to third parties (or at least does not specifically forbid them). It’s not a secret.
  • Even if it were a secret, it should be unsurprising. The selling of personal information is Facebook’s business model, which should be surprising to nobody. What do you think is paying for the upkeep costs of a website serving billions of people each day, doing so at zero price?
  • Although the #deletefacebook and #boycottfacebook campaigns are currently enjoying a surge in popularity and have the backing of prominent figures, they won’t result in immediate or significant change: I have said before that Facebook holds a monopoly on communication. This is exemplified by the fact that these campaigns are taking place, to a large extent, on Facebook.
  • Moreover, if we all migrate to a new social network (just as we have all left MySpace and Bebo), then the new company would be just as abusive towards its users. In any case, there is currently no centralised, zero-priced website that offers all of the things that Facebook offers its users: a soapbox, an address book, a calendar and an instant messaging service. Nor is there likely to be such a website in the future. This is a matter of economics; the ‘market’ for social networking websites admits natural monopolies.
  • As much as Brexit and Trump are regrettable, the fact that Cambridge Analytica was behind the two campaigns, helping to spread fake news and influencing the two votes to a strong degree, is a distraction. The real danger is our willingness to sign up to such a website in the first place.

For users of social networks, the only long-lasting solution is to break away from the centralised model and start using decentralised models, such as diaspora*. For instant messaging, using something like IRC would be a good first step towards decentralisation. As for having a soapbox, I run my own website (which you are reading now), because I want to have ownership and control over what I write. I have the freedom to amend or retract my content without the information being held in perpetuity by another party. I can make content accessible to a select group of friends without it also being accessible to any third parties (provided that I trust my friends, which by definition I do). Setting up one’s own website is not technically challenging, if one is happy to pay a monthly fee in exchange.

In summary,

‘Free as in beer’ implies ‘not free as in speech’.

That means you can’t expect to have a social network (or any other ‘service’) that does not charge you and yet entirely respects your digital rights.

2 thoughts on “Free speech and free beer”

  1. I think it would be useful if Google, FB et. al. were referred to more often as advertising, rather than as “tech”, companies. Indeed, Richard Stallman refers to those who have FB accounts as *useds*, rather than users.

    Other decentralised, open source alternatives include:
    – Nextcloud, file hosting/sharing/groupware/etc. (https://nextcloud.com/)
    – Mastodon, a federated Twitter-like social network (https://joinmastodon.org/)
    – Matrix, a decentralised communication protocol (https://matrix.org/docs/projects/try-matrix-now.html)
    – LBRY, a decentralised content sharing protocol based on a blockchain (https://lbry.io/faq/what-is-lbry)

    1. Thanks. I’m having a go with Matrix. The thing that strikes me immediately is the website, which is clearly designed for technical people in the open-source community who are happy to pull code from GitHub and run it (specifically, on a Unix system). It’s an exciting concept and I would love to see it flourish, but it will need to be easier to use (and I understand why they should be proud of the concept, but it’s honestly a turn-off to most people, who are happy with black-box solutions).

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