Looking for a new year’s resolution? @PaulbernalUK offers a suggestion some readers may find unthinkable

If you’re looking for a New Year’s Resolution – have you considered leaving Facebook? There are many reasons to do so, and getting more compelling all the time – all it takes is a little resolution.

1) Privacy

Everyone should be aware that privacy is an issue with Facebook. So many people put so much ‘private’ information onto Facebook that the possibility that your private information, photos, stories etc might get known to a wider public should be obvious. We shouldn’t be shocked when bad things happen – and yet even Randi Zuckerberg, sister of Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg, still seemed surprised and upset when a ‘private’ family photograph she posted somehow made its way onto Twitter. It wasn’t hacked, scraped, leaked or anything nasty – it’s just that Facebook is designed that way. The private becomes public all too easily – ‘sharing’ means you lose control. If Randi had just emailed the pic to her family, or put it on a genuinely private site, none of this would have happened.

2) Real Names Policy

Facebook’s policy is that people should only ever use their real names – and this can have very bad consequences. There are many people for whom using real names is dangerous, from whistle-blowers to political dissidents, from victims of domestic abuse to people just wanting to harmlessly let off steam. And it’s not just in the extremes that it matters: forcing a real names policy can matter to almost anyone. It helps anchor your ‘online’ life to your ‘offline’ life – meaning that anyone wishing to take advantage of you, to manipulate you, to take information out of context etc, and link what they find out about you online to your offline existence. Real names policies are potentially deeply pernicious – and not only does Facebook have one, but it is ratcheting up its efforts to enforce it. Snitchgate, about which I blogged in September, was just one example, where they experimented with getting people to ‘snitch’ on their friends for not using their real names. For Facebook, a real names policy has value – it makes their data on you more valuable when they want to sell it to others – but for people, it is both limiting and risky.

3) Monetization

Facebook is a business, and in business to do just one thing: make money. What that means is that they want to make money from their assets – your data. The recent furore over Instagram’s altered terms of service was just one example – and in many ways it was typical. Instagram has access to a huge collection of photographs – and since Facebook acquired Instagram for $1 billion earlier in 2012, it has been looking for ways to make money out of those photographs. The internet community’s reaction to that change was dramatic – and Instagram quickly changed tack (or at least appeared to) but make no mistake, the issue will recur. Facebook will look to make money – since the far-from-stellar IPO, the pressure to make money has been growing. Facebook has to satisfy its shareholders first of all, its advertisers next, and its ‘users’ last of all. The users don’t provide money directly, after all – so Facebook has to make money from their data. That drive to make money means that what happens to you when your data is used is of very little consequence….

4) Profiling – and self-profiling

One of the best ways to describe Facebook is as a ‘self-profiling service’. Everything you put up on Facebook, every ‘like’ button you press, every silly game you play, every person you ‘friend’ (and every person that ‘friends’ you) helps build up that profile. The profiles are used primarily for advertising – but also to build up their database of profiles. Profiling is something that is risky in two diametrically opposite ways: if profiling is accurate, it impinges on your privacy, whilst if it is inaccurate it can mean that bad decisions are made for you or about you. What’s more, profiling data is particularly vulnerable – allowing far more accurate and dangerous forms of identity fraud and similar scams.

5) Facial recognition

Facebook loves facial recognition – and it’s not just a coincidence of names. Facial recognition allows them to make more and more links, which helps them to profile better, and also to anchor information in the ‘real’ world, just like their ‘real names policies. Their practices with facial recognition – including ‘automatically’ tagging photographs – may have been rebuffed in Europe on the grounds of data protection, but just as with the Instagram issue (see (3) above), make no mistake, it’s coming back. The risks will still be there – they’re inherent in the concept – but they’ll find a way to get what at least purports to be consent from users in order to satisfy the letter of the law.  Anyone who has put a photo of themselves on Facebook should be concerned.

6) You never know who’s watching

Most Facebook users imagine that the people who look at their pages are their ‘friends’, or perhaps their ‘potential friends’, and don’t consider who else might look at what they post – and there are vast numbers of other groups who will look. Those who are slightly less naïve might understand that their employers might look, or their potential employers – but what about insurance companies, looking to see if people are engaging in risky activities, or credit agencies wanting to make more ‘accurate’ assessments? Or the authorities, looking for people doing ‘bad’ things – or people who ‘might’ do bad things? Show some interest in anything political… again, the risks are both ways: accurate watchers finding out things you don’t want them to find out, inaccurate watchers making bad decisions based on incorrect assumptions.

7) Facebook is forever

Many users of Facebook start off ‘young’ – perhaps in age, but perhaps in naïveté. They put material up that they think is funny, or cool, and don’t think how it might look in the future. This doesn’t just mean the odd drunken photo being seen by a potential employer – it means pretty much everything you put on Facebook. There was a big story in September 2012 when people thought their old ‘private messages’ were being posted onto their timelines, and they were hugely upset.It wasn’t true: what was actually happening was that some of their old public posts, posts from a few years ago, were reappearing – and people had forgotten the kind of things that they used to post. What you want to be public one year, you might well wish to forget in a few year’s time: with Facebook, that’s close to impossible! These days you can delete your account – but even if you do, that may not be enough. Services like profileengine.comkeep old Facebook profiles even when they’ve been deleted….

8) Monopoly

Facebook is proud that it has now got more than 1 billion users – which makes it pretty close to the only game in town. Monopolies are very, very rarely a good thing – and if Facebook becomes (or perhaps has already become) the default, that puts a huge amount of extra power in their hands. Effectively, they can do whatever they want, and we’ll still have to be there. That can’t be good – and shouldn’t be good, particularly is you really CAN leave, and really DON’T need to be on Facebook. There are alternatives….

9) Concentration

…and those alternatives offer a solution to another risk involved in Facebook. Facebook wants to be all things to all people – and that means all your data, all your links, all aspects of your life concentrated in one place. That means much more accurate profiling, but also much greater vulnerability. If Facebook knows everything about you, they have much more power over you – and their profiles become much more powerful, so if compromised, sold, hacked, given to the authorities, to some other ‘enemy’ of yours, they have much more potential for damage. What would be much better – though somewhat harder work – would be to use different services for different features. Use one provider for email, use twitter for mass communication, set up your own blog on a different provider, put your photos on your own website, play games on yet another and so forth. Much less risk – and much more freedom to get better services. Also, much less dependency…

10) Dependency – and bad habits…

The last reason I’m going to mention here is dependency. Many people seem to be becoming deeply dependent on Facebook. They use it for everything – and seem totally lost if it goes down. They can’t contact their real friends and relations – they haven’t even kept a record of their email addresses. That means they end up spending far too much time on Facebook – and get into lots of bad habits, habits that Facebook encourage. Too much sharing (which to Facebook sounds like blasphemy), too many pictures posted online, too much information given out (e.g. geo-location data) without a real thought to the consequences. If you leave Facebook, and instead set up particular systems for particular functions, you’re far less likely to become dependent – and you’re far less lost if one or other of those services goes down for some reason or other.

And if that’s not enough…

…there are many other reasons. One that matters to people like me is that the only way that Facebook will ever change in any meaningful way, the only way it will start to take users’ privacy and other rights seriously, is if it starts to lose users. If enough people start leaving, it will have to do something differently, and start to take us more seriously rather than just treat us as cattle to be herded and milked….

So why not do it? Make it your New Year’s Resolution: leave Facebook!

Here is a link to instructions as to how to delete your Facebook account. If you have the strength, go for the real ‘deletion’ rather than the ‘deactivation’ method. If you just deactivate, you’re leaving your data there for Facebook and their partners to exploit…..

Paul Bernal is a Lecturer in IT, IP and Media Law at UEA. This article was originally posted on Paul’s blog. You can follow Paul on twitter @PaulBernalUK

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