About this website

This is the first post on this website. At the moment, it consists of just a few pages describing me and my work. Occasionally, I will post things about maths, science, computing, Chinese history, or anything else that interests me.

I am starting this blog as part of a migration away from Facebook. There are several reasons for this, many of which are privacy-related. Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation has a more detailed list of Facebook’s transgressions. Below I explain some of the main points.

Privacy

When people talk about ‘privacy’ on a social network such as Facebook, they often think about controls that keep co-workers, bosses or students from seeing posts that they make in their personal lives. This is an important aspect of privacy, and while Facebook does not offer complete protection, it has made improvements, and a savvy user can achieve these controls quite easily.

But the true danger to privacy that Facebook presents is that Facebook themselves may read posts or things said in supposedly private conversations between users. The danger is not that Mark Zuckerberg will personally read your conversations and use it for blackmailing or shaming you. Rather, it is your usage patterns, writing style or unconscious behaviour which give away the most interesting information about you. Facebook is also capable of tracking your browsing habits on other sites. Logging out doesn’t protect you from this tracking.

The upshot: Even if you never write a message or post a status explicitly stating anything, and even if you give a false name, age or gender, it is easy to build a detailed profile of you, by linking together all of the information that is collected.

Targeted advertising is not a huge worry for me; I never pay attention to adverts anyway. I am most concerned by the prospect of medical information being collected or deduced: an insurance company could use this to set my premiums, or a prospective employer could discriminate against me based on my medical conditions. (The latter may be illegal, but that wouldn’t necessarily stop them.) This is not an unfounded concern: one of my friends noted that she was getting adverts targeted towards one of her conditions.

Ownership, openness and censorship

Centralised, proprietary systems such as Facebook, but also other networks such as Tumblr or WordPress.com, are not a sensible medium for storing or publishing media such as articles or photos. The danger comes from (a) the possibility that the service could be terminated with little or no warning, causing your media to be lost, and (b) the possibility of the host censoring your media.

I don’t know anything about copyright law or fair use, but the prospect of Facebook using my photos as their own (perhaps selling them off as stock photos, for example) is actually a fairly minor concern for me.

Facebook can censor posts arbitrarily. In 2014, it removed a photo of breastfeeding. In practice, its censorship seems to be motivated not by its own morality, but its desire to keep itself unblocked in countries such as Russia and Turkey. It does this by censoring pages of dissent, essentially to appease the Russian and Turkish governments.

Although there is no evidence of WordPress.com doing the same, one has no guarantee against it.

This website is hosted independently server in Cambridge (but independent of the University Computing Service), and is far less vulnerable to this sort of censorship. If I posted something illegal, libellous or extremely controversial, then the service provider may order the shutting down of this site or the government may order my arrest, but these powers are subject to public oversight, and are harder to abuse.

(Note that WordPress.com refers to the blog hosting service; this website is powered by the software WordPress but is hosted independently.)

Facebook as a walled garden

While Facebook can be useful for sharing things amongst immediate friends, the audience of such posts is in most cases ultimately limited to other users of Facebook. Hence Facebook is not really such a public platform. (Contrast that against this post, for example, which can be read by anybody on the Internet.)

Student unions often use Facebook to make announcements, rather than university email. This means that announcements, including important announcements such as upcoming committee elections, never reach students who are not on Facebook or not connected to the rest of the student body. This is undemocratic, and particularly affects mainland Chinese students.

Epilogue

Writing this has taken much longer than I had expected, and I need to go and do some work now, but hopefully it will be useful for persuading some other people to leave, perhaps reverting to email (or even face-to-face contact!) for communication.