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We’re all data hostages
Facebook turned 15 Monday, and it’s hard for most of us to remember life outside Mark Zuckerberg’s social panopticon. It’s hard, too, to imagine a challenger to it, outside of China, which is taking digital surveillance to new heights.
You can delete your Facebook account, of course, though as many have pointed out, that’s an act of privilege that ignores how critical the social network is to organizers and activists around the world.
And, as Zuckerberg has insistently pointed out, you can download your data. But what does that mean, when there’s nowhere to take it?
Google is shutting down its Facebook killer, Google Plus, in April. Path, a mobile social network designed by a former Facebook executive, shut down in October. Twitter is — well, whatever it is, it’s not a substitute for all the things that have come to live under Facebook’s blue umbrella. Snapchat has attracted some users with its promise that your photos won’t go somewhere permanent on the internet, but for people looking to share photos of their kids with the grandparents, that’s hardly the point.
Data portability — the ability to take your digital information where you please — has become an empty promise. For Facebook to function as promised, for it to serve as the one true source of digital identity, it’s had to crush all competition (or acquire it, in the instances of Instagram and WhatsApp).
Zuckerberg has proven to be a singularly poor custodian of the power he’s amassed. But we as internet consumers bear some responsibility, too. Unwilling to spread our social bets, we’ve arrived at a desert of choice.
In Facebook’s earliest days, there was a promise that you could take your list of friends from app to app, with Facebook functioning more like the social plumbing of the internet than an entire house.
That very openness proved to be a vulnerability, and Facebook started to tighten up. One of the early victims was Twitter, which Facebook tried to buy and came to view as a rival. In 2007, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone happily announced that Twitter had created a Facebook app. In 2010, when Twitter tried to let users follow people they were friends with on Facebook friends, piggybacking off of Facebook’s friends data, Facebook shut them down.
A series of doors slammed, as social networks veered away from cooperating. Twitter shut down a LinkedIn partnership in 2012. When Google released Google Plus, it was closed by design, purportedly because of the problem of “social spam.” By 2014, Facebook realized that giving away data to others’ apps made it vulnerable, but not before Cambridge Analytica made off with 87 million user profiles.
The European Union made data portability a right last year in its General Data Protection Regulation. But those regulation-mandated downloads do nothing to preserve what’s lost when you leave a social network: the crucial context of how your posts and photos intertwine with other people’s timelines. (Sure I can download all of my snaps of Ramona the Love Terrier, but let’s be real: She’s there for your comments.)
Bereft of those connections — the links that Zuckerberg has sole control over — you get to be no more than a castaway on your own data island. A decade and a half after Facebook’s creation, those are the choices it affords us: hermit or hostage.
— Owen Thomas ([email protected])
Quote of the week
“I don’t know who this chap is.” — Facebook communications and policy chief Nick Clegg, who was ostensibly hired to help improve the company’s political standing in Europe, going full Mariah Carey on EU chief antitrust economist Tommaso Valletti
Twitter reports earnings Thursday, and IBM kicks off its annual Think conference at the newly expanded Moscone Center Tuesday.
What I’m reading
Apple retail chief Angela Ahrendts is leaving the company, not long after getting a big profile in Vogue Business. (CNBC)
Do tech IPOs have an effect on home prices? Yes — but it isn’t what you’d expect, Kathleen Pender reports. (San Francisco Chronicle)
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AltSchool might not be around in five years, founder Max Ventilla tells Susan Adams. He’s betting the company on selling software to other schools. (Forbes)
Vaping company Juul is expanding in Mountain View, even as it gets a cold shoulder in its hometown of San Francisco, Catherine Ho reports. (San Francisco Chronicle)
A crypto exchange CEO died holding the passwords to $200 million in customers’ digital currency, Doug Alexander reports. (Bloomberg)
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