Facebook is not a public service

Some people were kind of freaked out when news emerged that Facebook has been conducting psychological research on people without their knowledge.

This latest controversy concerns revelations about a 2012 experiment that looked into whether tweaking the newsfeeds of about 700,000 users to be more positive or negative would affect the kind of posts they made. Ends up it did.

Now privacy commissioners of the world, including Canada’s (subscribers only), as well experts in the field on what qualifies as informed consent in academia, will review and discuss whether Facebook crossed the line with this study and other projects.

It’s not the first time Facebook has raised the ire of users and critics alike. It’s been taken to task on issues such as how it shares people’s personal information with other businesses and how accessible users’ profiles are to the general public by default.

For all these vulnerabilities to which Facebook usage exposes people, there are details somewhere in the fine print — which most people don’t actually read before clicking they agree to them in order to activate their accounts — that Facebook executives have felt, at one time or another, gave them the right to do all these things people are annoyed about.

But it’s not that simple; even Facebook must comply with the privacy laws of the lands they operate in, not to mention project an image to the public that they are not evil (Oh wait, that not-being-evil shtick is Google’s thing).

Still, as the haggling between Facebook, privacy advocates and others carry on, we should keep in mind that Facebook in not a public service supported by our tax dollars or a God-given entitlement. It’s an Internet-based service provided by a private-sector company that’s making tons of money and hopes to make more.

If you don’t like what Facebook does, you don’t have to use it. If you never sign up for a Facebook account, they will never know anything about you, meaning they won’t share your information with third-party app developers, won’t send you targeted advertising and won’t be able to conduct experiments on you, among other things.

As an individual, it is up to you to weigh the costs and benefits that come with being a Facebook user.

One could make a similar argument about Bell Canada, which has come under scrutiny for its use of customers’ information for targeted advertising. Yet with a company like Bell, it’s hard to say you’re just not going to deal with it, given that it is the incumbent phone company in a large swath of the country, and among just a handful of providers of mobile, Internet and television services in Canada.

As ubiquitous as Facebook has become, other Internet services are pretty popular also. For example, a recent study by Sandvine found Netflix is responsible for 34.2 per cent of the peak-time, downstream Internet traffic in North America. As convenient as Facebook can be for keeping in touch with people, we can live without it. There are other ways of maintaining contact, including email, the phone and, if worst comes to worst, visiting people.

Facebook has proven to be a smart company that is ready to shift as needed to comply with public sentiment, and I would suggest if there’s a large enough segment of people outraged about the experiments we’ve recently learned about, this kind of thing will come to a stop.

In the meantime, remember that Facebook, Google and other seemingly free online services are run by for-profit businesses. If you are not buying products in your usage of them, chances are you are the product. But the good news is that, unlike with government, you are free to disassociate yourself from these Internet companies anytime.

Derek Abma is editor of The Wire Report. He can be reached at dabma@thewirereport.ca.