“The world will be better if you share more“: Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook, and Economic Surveillance

The August 2010 issue of Wired Magazine features a story about privacy on Facebook.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is quoted saying: “The concept that the world will be better if you share more is something that’s pretty foreign to a lot of people – and it runs into all these privacy concerns”. He acknowledges that some people have “the vision of a surveillance world”. But he associates Google, not Facebook with surveillance. He says that Google’s strategy of data collection “is a little scary” and thinks that Facebook in contrast gives users control over their data. “Given that the world is moving towards more sharing of information, making sure that it happens in a bottom-up way, with people inputting the information themselves and having control over how their information interacts with the system, as opposed to a centralized way, through it being tracked in some surveillance system”.

Zuckerberg has repeatedly said that he does not care about profit, but wants to help people with Facebook’s tools and wants to create an open society. Kevin Colleran, Facebook advertising sale executive, says in the Wired story that “Mark is not motivated by money”. In a story by the Times (October 20, 2008, http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/technology/article4974197.ece), Zuckerberg said: “The goal of the company is to help people to share more in order to make the world more open and to help promote understanding between people. The long-term belief is that if we can succeed in this mission then we also be able to build a pretty good business and everyone can be financially rewarded. […] The Times: Does money motivate you. Zuckerberg: No”.

Zuckerberg thinks that the only problem about Facebook surveillance is that other individuals get access to images or information of users that is not meant for being available to them. He also thinks that privacy control options will solve this problem. Facebook has tended to make ever more information available to all users as its standard setting. One cannot assume that all users are highly skilful in setting their privacy options. Zuckerberg ignores the skills divide in social networking site usage.

But the more crucial problem is that Zuckerberg fully ignores the economic power structures of the modern economy, into which Facebook is embedded. If Zuckerberg really does not care about profit, why is Facebook then not a non-commercial platform and why does it use targeted advertising? The problems of targeted advertising are that it aims at controlling and manipulating human needs, that users are normally not asked if they agree to the use of advertising on the Internet, but have to agree to advertising if they want to use commercial platforms (lack of democracy), that advertising can increase market concentration, that it is intransparent for most users what kind of information about them is used for advertising purposes, and that users are not paid for the value creation they engage in when using commercial web 2.0 platforms and uploading data. Surveillance on Facebook is not only an interpersonal process, where users view data about other individuals that might benefit or harm the latter, it is primarily economic surveillance, i.e. the collection, storage, assessment, and commodification of personal data, usage behaviour, and user-generated data for economic purposes. Facebook and other web 2.0 platforms are large advertising-based capital accumulation machines that achieve their economic aims by economic surveillance.

Facebook collects information about user behaviour on other sites for economic purposes: “We may ask advertisers to tell us how our users responded to the ads we showed them (and for comparison purposes, how other users who didn’t see the ads acted on their site). This data sharing, commonly known as ‘conversion tracking,’ helps us measure our advertising effectiveness and improve the quality of the advertisements you see. We may receive information about whether or not you’ve seen or interacted with certain ads on other sites in order to measure the effectiveness of those ads“ (Privacy Policy, April 22, 2010).

Facebook targets advertisement to individual users by surveilling their usage behaviour and interests: “We allow advertisers to choose the characteristics of users who will see their advertisements and we may use any of the non-personally identifiable attributes we have collected (including information you may have decided not to show to other users, such as your birth year or other sensitive personal information or preferences) to select the appropriate audience for those advertisements. For example, we might use your interest in soccer to show you ads for soccer equipment, but we do not tell the soccer equipment company who you are. […] We occasionally pair advertisements we serve with relevant information we have about you and your friends to make advertisements more interesting and more tailored to you and your friends. For example, if you connect with your favorite band’s page, we may display your name and profile photo next to an advertisement for that page that is displayed to your friends. We only share the personally identifiable information visible in the social ad with the friend who can see the ad. You can opt out of having your information used in social ads on this help page” (Privacy Policy, April 22, 2010).

Zuckerberg and Facebook ignore concerns about advertising settings. Facebook’s privacy policy is the living proof that Facebook is primarily about profit-generation by advertising. “The world will be better if you share more“? For whom, Mark Zuckerberg? “Sharing” on Facebook in economic terms means primarily that Facebook “shares” information with advertising clients. And “sharing” is only the euphemism for selling and commodifying data. Facebook commodifies and trades user data and user behaviour data. Facebook does not make the world a better place, it makes the world a more commercialized place, a big shopping mall without exit. It makes the world only a better place for companies interested in advertising, not for users.

Mr. Zuckerberg, if you are a man who stands by his word, and Facebook for you is really not about profit, then please abolish targeted advertising and any kind of advertising on Facebook tomorrow and transform Facebook into a non-commercial, non-profit Internet platform. Yours truly, Christian Fuchs.

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