Opinion: Privacy Rights and Social Networks, Take 2

It is well known that J. Edgar Hoover headed the major US law enforcement agency, the Bureau of Investigation later becoming the FBI, and that he collected information on the prominent figures of US politics and economics of the time for blackmail. He stayed in position until his death well after retirement age.

You’ll ask me: what does J. Edgar Hoover has to do with Social Network? Most of its users are just normal people, the majority of them is not even from the US. Well, both could become awfully similar if users are not made aware and are not fighting back. Things are even ironic: in the case of J. Edgar Hoover, he had to work hard to gather sensitive information; in the case of social networks however, they have nothing to do: the users do that for them, collectively and it even makes them happy about it!

Let’s go back a minute. A month ago, I published a short post (Image rights and Social Networks) about why I would no longer post directly images on Facebook but rather links to my website. This was triggered by a plan change of the Terms of Services of Facebook which is basically allowing Facebook to sell all your content for advertisement purpose. The actual text reads

You give us permission to use your name, and profile picture, content, and information in connection with commercial, sponsored, or related content (such as a brand you like) served or enhanced by us. This means, for example, that you permit a business or other entity to pay us to display your name and/or profile picture with your content or information, without any compensation to you. If you have selected a specific audience for your content or information, we will respect your choice when we use it.

The proposed Terms of Services raised many protestations in the US and have not been — yet — implemented. There is even an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission, however — and many know how much I like Apple — the US often have a tendency to read their own laws and court rulings differently whether they concern US interests or Foreign interests (I might be intimately convinced that Samsung has copied Apple, it remains that the same court ruling should lead to the same outcome…). This does not give me much faith in the probable outcome.

I believe that most Social Network users don’t really care about these privacy issues because either

  1. They simply don’t care; they don’t even imagine that someone might use their information: they don’t feel being newsworthy and happy about that, even if some people dream about their 15 minutes of fame, their life won’t be affected if it does not happen;
  2. They don’t realise what it is really all about, they lack knowledge and awareness; unlike the previous group they would care if they knew;
  3. They are living in countries where privacy rights are not clear or unknown, in some of these countries even the notion of rights is vague, but users are happy of their change to be able to access a computer and a social network

There is a minority who are concerned about the issue, but where else will you find a Social Network with 1.2 billion users? Even if you care about these things, most of your friends are likely to be in either of these groups. So where else would you go to connect with them? It is the same for companies, where else would they find a market place with access to 1.2 billion potential customers? The great thing for them is: to use a social network you’ll need if not to own one, at least to have access to a Computer, thus as prospective client you do have some money to spend, Facebook effectively filters out the poorest ones: the ones the commercial community do not care about, except through the red cross.


That’s theory, what could really happen?

It was said many times already over the years: we are collectively gathering information about ourselves, we tag our faces on images, others tag our face on images, some we might have preferred not to be on the Social Network in the first place. We have done that for about 10 years now and are continuing at higher pace every day. So far there were a number of issues, they are sometimes difficult to understand, but nothing has gone really bad so far. So what could go wrong?

1. A Friday Night Party

“The week has been long at work, but we made it alive! The whole team goes out, we have more than a few drinks and towards the end we start making funny faces with an iPhone, the images go right into Facebook with tags and all. We find it very clever and we are actually impressed at our ease of use of the Facebook apps given all the drinks we had… The next day, I feel a bit guilty. That wasn’t the smartest thing to do and on top of it we even posted the images on Facebook, though I must say they look funny! I feel safe because I’ve always set very restrictive privacy rights to my account. Only my friends can see the images and they cannot share them.”

“A few years later, I became member of the management at my company, hard work has payed, I am on a super fast trajectory and I know that my name starts to be mentioned during succession planning at the highest levels. Until one day Facebook decides to make an ad campaign about how great it is to party and to share joy with the world. Facebook wants the campaign to be about genuine party, not something artificial fabricated by photographers and you’d have to pay for it while Facebook has access to billions of images that can be used freely.”

“I had long forgotten about the party, but a particularly funny image of me was selected for this campaign. Well it was funny at the time, it is no longer funny at all. It does not take long until people in my company notice it, there are so many jealous people around. Nothing really happened, but rapidly my management put me on the side, I don’t get promoted and when I ask whether there is a problem I am told ‘Oh not at all, you are doing such a good job and are so valuable to the company that it is for us difficult to find a replacement’. It was a few years ago, since then what I was doing was no longer so valuable and I was put in charge of special projects… No project ever came to me and bored I finally left the company…”

2. It was a great idea indeed

“A few years back, I started a project with a few friends from college. As life would have it they moved to various cities to continue their majors, but we stayed in touch creating a private group in Facebook. The idea was great, we could share images, sketches, and comments on the project. The project was how to improve on web search algorithms, it was an intellectual challenge we gave ourselves, we worked hard and it was fun. Then we realised that we could actually try it for real, we programmed our website with our secret super duper algorithm and put it live, also to be consistent we destroyed all our postings in the group and deleted the private group as to ensure that what we did wouldn’t leak. In a few days we had thousands of hits, going quickly into the millions. An incredible and unexpected success, but creating number of issues which required funding. We incorporated a company and initiated a round of funding.”

“At the time Facebook wanted to show how it fosters collaboration in addition to connecting people and allowing them to share. In other terms, Facebook was attempting to go after Microsoft. Unfortunately for us, Facebook chose to illustrate their campaign with some of our exchanges, which must have remained lying somewhere on their servers, more unfortunate was that they showed was close to the final stage of the development. Even as we had patented our algorithm the ToS of Facebook was such that it did not apply, within days the big search companies looked at our algorithm and implemented some form of it, becoming much more efficient. Our company funding search was cancelled and we shut it down a few weeks later, without any means to go after either Facebook or the search companies”

3. What an image

“I am using Social Network to promote my photography business, I’m sharing my images on Facebook but I always put a watermark and I upload only low resolution images so they cannot be re-used, especially in prints. A few years back, I shared one of these images about an unknown singer who wanted a few promotion photos.”

“Lately the singer started to experience fame in our community and an article was published by a newspaper, the artist gave an image from the shoot to the journalist and the newspaper published the interview with the photo without contacting me for the rights.”

“I complained and threatened to sue the newspaper for violation of copyright. Unfortunately, the editor flatly denied my right telling me that I should be satisfied as the newspaper published the image with my watermark and as to a payment of my right I should not expect anything as the image was in public domain already. Surprised and denying that fact, I asked an explanation and was told that as the image was published on Facebook it was considered as public domain and hence I wasn’t entitled to any money.”

“As a local photographer, I couldn’t afford the legal fees to actually sue the newspaper and thus I had to move on.”


These stories are of course fictitious, I am not a novelist and I am sure others can imagine even better stories, unfortunately the last one is not that far from reality


Is it time to move to Google+ or another social network?

Unsurprisingly, Google just announced that it will use names and photo of users in its ads. About a year ago, LinkedIn introduced a new privacy option to allow users to deny LinkedIn the right to use their image and name, the interesting point is is that when the option was introduced all users were “in” by default.

There is a pattern emerging, a predictable one: what was initially done for fun, as intellectual challenge or to score with girls — as in the case of Facebook — represents now billions of investment which have to be justified, it is not as cool or fun but that’s the price to be a millionaire or billionaire, founder of these companies are more than happy to comply.

What is happening these days with social networks is similar to what happened during the early days of internet: everyone sees the monetization potential but the business model is not yet clear. Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and all the others are struggling with it. Maybe the only doing ok is LinkedIn which opted early on for a free and a premium model. In the early days of these tools, and all the new ones that are regularly emerging, were cool; because the tools were cool the users liked them and usage level increased exponentially; seeing the potential the service company start experimenting, when they go too far they upset their users, when not the analysts criticise them  for not cashing on their potential; funding continues to increase and experimentation continue; the company makes everybody rich with an IPO and from there shareholders scrutiny puts pressure and the company must demonstrate its ability to generate cash. It will be interesting to see what happens with Twitter after the IPO, I however predict that the same will happen to Twitter than to Facebook. Just give enough time to the shareholder to increase their grip and Twitter will become less and less cool.

The case of Facebook for social network, same as Google with search, is that they are effectively in a no competition market, of course there are offers from other social networks but none of them is even approaching the number of registered users of Facebook, and my guess is that it is even worse when considering non-US users (with the exception of China). It creates an effective monopoly and until another social network shows numbers approaching theirs, they have nothing to worry. Which also means that they can also do pretty much whatever they want, including changing their ToS, even if it upsets people too much, they can withdraw a bit to satisfy everyone, let users get used to the new ToS and come later with another change which, though with a different language, will achieve the same thing they intended in the first place.

Now don’t think that this is just a Facebook thing, it is because Facebook was first, but it would have been at least the same if any other of the players, Google, LinkedIn, etc had been first instead. Proof is that Instagram attempted the same thing when it was the leader of photo sharing, it got rebuffed but now Instagram belongs to Facebook, guess what: It is tried again, just now it is not about the images, it is about “content”, another word: “everything including images“.


Is there a solution?

In my opinion there are two possible ways to deal with the issue. Of course you could consider stopping using social network, but let’s face it: a social network is a useful tool and something we would have difficulties to live without. So no, that’s not a viable solution, social networks are part of society as much as cell phones are.

1. Use social networks responsibly

Most won’t exceed speed limits on the roads, avoid driving drunk; some because the police is roaming the roads others because they are aware of the dangers and are behaving responsibly.

There is no police on the social network (well that’s not completely true, certain illegal topics are not allowed and being controlled, and there are plenty of anecdotal stories about not so smart people admitting a crime on Facebook and having the police knocking at their door the minute after) but you can still behave responsibly. The American Society of Media Photographers published a great Q&A about what Facebook users should be aware of and ways to use social networks for what they are useful for and behave in a way that does not give away too much to them. I no longer share image on Facebook but only links to this website, my traffic has actually increased since I’ve done that although I feared that it would decrease.

Be careful about what you are posting on Facebook, what information you are giving away about yourself: is it necessary to complete your profile because you are only 35% done or that field or that other one was left empty? Don’t forget that each time social networks are pushing for more complete profile it is not for your benefit, it is for theirs: they want to learn about you to target you better with their ads which they can sell for more money. Think more often about the possible consequences of your post, maybe not the immediate effects but what could happen in the future.

If you have kids using social networks, do make them even more aware of that. They will do something foolish and it might follow them their whole life, how many Human Resources services are performing background checks doing searches on social networks? Think about these celebrities who had intimate images taken earlier in their life, fame comes and these images tend to come back and hit them where it hurts. Some were looking for publicity but many other were just some dumb teens having fun and not considering the possible consequences. And unlike the former CEO and now Chairman of Google once suggested, it is not possible for your kids to change their name when they come to age…

2. A curated social network

One of the best and most successful internet service is provided by a non-profit company with the role of curator, it curates the Wikipedia.org group of websites, it is funded by voluntary donations and without recourse to advertisement or any commercial interest under any form. I personally think that Wikipedia.org is the single best thing available on the internet, it provides knowledge to everyone who has access to a computer connected to the internet where in the past it was limited to only people who could afford to buy the Encyclopaedia Britannica (or equivalent) or had access to a library with the books available. It is not a prefect solution because, even hard scientific facts are not all universally agreed upon so even less about other topics. But Wikipedia might be the closest thing to perfection.

So what about a curated social network? From my perspective, the major flaw in mainstream social networks is their financial accountability. A possible solution would be to eliminate the profit aspect from their business and provide a tool solely aligned to the interest and the needs of its users, a similar model to Wikipedia.

Utopia? Probably yes, it would require an impossible number of things to happen such as

  1. a bunch of crazy, dedicated and passionate people to embark in such a venture;
  2. reckoning that facilitating communication, sharing of information, images, ideas be noble enough to stimulate as much or more interest than a foundation like Wikipedia;
  3. once the nobility is accepted this passionate group should accept to forfeit riches in the millions or billions and stay firm about it;
  4. providing sufficient offering to attract more than half Facebook users (i.e. taking the 2nd spot on the market);
  5. gathering the necessary public funding to support continuously the necessary platform (likely to be several order of magnitude bigger than what Wikipedia is);

but we can dream, unlike Facebook and a number of other social networks, Wikipedia.org is available in China. It wouldn’t necessarily mean that everyone will always be happy with it, not everyone expectations are the same, local laws might make things complicated (established social networks, operating for profit, can afford to lobby government and influence legislation where it suits them) but at least the Terms of Services and the exploitation of user data would not be driven by a profit minded company.


Why Photoanimalium.com?

This post might be the longest I’ve published so far… and it is not per se about photo.

Actually it is about photo; beyond personal satisfaction, I am drawing little profit from my photography activity and nevertheless I feel close to professional photographers, knowing that so many are struggling to make a living of their art. It annoys me greatly that a company of such a scope as Facebook is giving itself, via its Terms of Services, the right to use for its benefit and at no cost any photography published on its website. As the American Society of Media Photographers explains, the current language of Facebook Terms of Service is rather vague at places and could even allow Facebook to edit out watermarks from images striping away any form of acknowledgment to the artist. The least I can do is show solidarity and lend my voice for these fellow photographers.

I have upset a number of administrator of social networks groups who insist that photos must be published in groups while links are not allowed. Although I do understand the issue of spam which happens mostly with shared links, many of these administrators do not understand what is exactly happening and do not fully grasp the consequences of posting images on Facebook. Hopefully this post and the previous one, helps them to understand.


But above all, as many others, I have been trained in technology very early in my life and I have long worked for a Swiss bank as risk manager giving me a certain sense for security and privacy, I feel therefore a duty, beyond just the realm of photography, to help increasing the awareness and maybe contribute to help a few people to protect themselves while using their favourite social network.



Special thanks to Pablo who pointed me to the American Society of Media Photographers link.

Opinion: Privacy Rights and Social Networks, Take 2Christian C. Berclaz

9 comments on "Opinion: Privacy Rights and Social Networks, Take 2"

  1. Mark Keane

    As is usual with such things, the article is incorrect and a little hysterical. The options to which it alludes do exist, but can all be opted out of, so that your posts and images are not used in advertising contexts.

  2. Mark Keane

    To opt out, click on the cog top right, then ‘Privacy settings’ > ‘Adverts’ and select ‘no-one’ for both options.

  3. Christian C. Berclaz

    Mark Keane I appreciate you taking the time to read and your comment. You maybe want to note however that the new ToS are not YET implemented. As such these privacy options still exist, however they will likely disappear if/when the new ToS comes into force. Moreover, if Facebook ultimately back track this time, it does not guarantee that they won’t attempt it again in the future. As to the tone, sure it is theatrical, everybody his/her writing style 🙂 , it remains that most people don’t really know what’s happening and explaining them with contrast (though polarising) will hopefully help them to understand…

  4. Mark Keane

    Hi Christian, I agree with getting the message out to people to be responsible with their public information. The opt out to which I alluded states that it applies to all future changes which FB might make. FB already has a claim in principle to anything you publish on their site, so any new ToS will make little difference. The simple fact is that if you don’t want your work in the public domain you should not publish it there.

  5. Christian C. Berclaz

    Hi Mark, my experience with legal documents (especially in common law but not exclusively) is that a corporation can do pretty much what it want (even including a silent agreement which waive some of you legal rights: you don’t even have to do anything, without explicitly rejecting the new language before a given date it becomes in force). There might be court rulings that impose a corporation to act a certain way but there’ll busy people in the legal department to find another way to reach the same objective. In short I don’t trust corporations, any corporations. I also agree with you on the matter of public domain, but how many photographers are faced with the dilemma between being staying unknown and starving or promoting their work and be expose to theft…

  6. Mark Keane

    It is an eternal dilemma Christian. The internet has certainly made it much harder as regards possible theft for the professional photographer. At the same time though it has made it possible for them to reach out to a wider audience, so it is a mixed blessing.

  7. Christian C. Berclaz

    Absolutely Mark! And whilst theft and exploitation without rights are not acceptable in all case, it is particularly enraging that huge companies are orchestrating what should be considered as large scale theft

  8. Good read and valuable warning. I gave up posting images directly into Facebook a while ago. It also annoys me that certain groups do not allow external links and insist on having the photo uploaded to FB. FB keeps every single bit uploaded to their servers, even when you delete, it’s still there. Have to think twice what kind of photo/info you are giving them…

    • Thanks for the support Raf! FB, and social networks in general, are so ubiquitous these days that people have since long stopped being careful. It reminds me of the times where cell phone were becoming popular, everybody wanted on and it was possible to overhear a lot of discussions because people weren’t taking care what they were saying and where they were saying it (and apparently it is still the case) and when stories of being spied on using simple radioshack equipment they were all surprised… I suppose we are going in a similar direction with social networks and many will get caught with their pants down at the worst possible moment, I’ll be happy if I can prevent it for just a few with my warning. In the meantime we’ll continue to be bothered by some FB group admins who don’t know better than to work, free of charge, for FB to enforce FB’s rule.

Leave a Reply