08 June 2011

When tech companies become cultural arbiters

Confronting the threat of "visible areolas" on Facebook
Facebook imposed another creepy "feature" - facial recognition technology - on its users without saying much about it.  It was another relatively quiet encroachment on personal privacy in the name of providing more value to marketers.  An (ironically) anonymous Facebook spokesperson apologized for "the way it was rolled out," but three days later everyone was pretty much back to business.

To me it was the latest warning signal that we're ceding too much of our lives to people whose values work exceptionally well for a successful company but create significant problems in other facets of our lives.

There's no question that companies such as Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft have changed the way millions (if not billions) of people live their lives.  Many of the innovative products and services they've created (or acquired) have made profound improvements to our quality of life.  We've gotten to the point where fast and easy access to the services provided by these and similar companies is a social justice issue.

These companies create a relatively minuscule amount of original content - instead they make it easier for others to create, find, consume, organize, enhance, and share that content.  As millions upon millions of people use their networks and their services, these companies aren't simply helping us create an "online version" of our culture, they're an integral and increasingly significant portion of our actual culture.  And in doing so, these four companies have become our cultural arbiters by default.

They decide who can find your content and how. They decide if you can earn a living in an online business and how. They decide if you can share certain information and how. And arguably they sometimes even decide if you can OWN your own content and how.

I think it's fair to say for the most part they've done an amazing job.  Every day millions of people create and share trillions of pieces of information across the platforms these four companies have created, and it's a fast and easy process.  Every day millions of people move billions if not trillions of dollars across the commerce platforms they've created, creating economic opportunities for people who had no chance of profiting from their ideas just a few years ago.  I wouldn't be able to write this blog post and you wouldn't be able to read it, comment, or share it without these companies.

Further, I look at the values these companies promote and it looks like a recipe for success.  Things like:

  • Pursuing relentless, even dogmatic, measures to protect intellectual property rights. 
  • Demonstrating passionate loyalty to customers, and always striving to do more for them.
  • Creating products and platforms that are so good they become the standard everyone uses.
  • Innovating at breakneck speed - get the it to market first, and fix it later.
  • Embracing the "social" - err on the side of sharing and let users tell you if they don't want something.
  • Automating solutions to complicated problems - save time and money. 

But while Facebook embraces the social they reject the personal.  It's clear that the privacy of Facebook users takes a distant back seat to the revenue potential of their marketing data. Facebook is constantly thinking of ways to serve its customers - the companies who want to know what you do so they can sell more effectively.   So Facebook develops ideas that provide marketers with knowledge about you without your knowledge or specific consent.  They'll apologize afterward, but they'll never stop imposing "features" that sometimes blow up in their faces (remember Beacon?) and forcing users to opt-out rather than opt-in because that would limit their value to customers. Resultingly, we've seen the emergence of a new form of moral hazard. Since users aren't the actual customers of Facebook and they have incomplete knowledge of the consequences of their actions, they make decisions they may not otherwise make.

And ask Ars Technica what it thinks about Facebook's approach to intellectual property - all you have to do is claim a site has taken your content and that site is suspended.  You apparently don't even have to reveal your own identity.  The burden of proof is on the accused, not the accuser.  That's not how it works in our courtrooms, but that's apparently how it works on Facebook, and possibly on Google's YouTube.  It appears the suspension is automatic - kill the site and then review the situation when the company's amazingly small and no doubt overburdened staff has a chance to get to it.

Of course there are the many times Facebook has automatically suspended accounts for posting "obscene" pictures of breastfeeding moms.  Years ago I noted the irony of scrapping those accounts while protecting the "free speech" rights of pro-anorexia Facebook groups that claimed the disease was a lifestyle choice and offered tips on which drugs to take to stave off hunger.   My wife told me that just last week Facebook did it again - closing down an account simply over an incorrect claim of obscenity.  I loved this line from a spokesperson (again apparently anonymous) the reporter quoted from 2008 - "we've made a visible areola the determining factor."  Actually, they've made the claim of a visible areola the determining factor.  Perhaps those who wanted to shut down pro-ana groups should have told Facebook they saw a nipple there.

I think Apple has handled this a bit better but has had its own challenges here as well - like when they allowed a religious organization access to their iTunes platform to distribute an app that promoted "ex-gay" conversion therapy.  Medical organizations have suggested conversion therapy is ineffective at best and harmful at worst.  Gay advocates noted the irony of placing age restrictions on some apps geared toward gay people but this was widely available to anyone.  It took a petition with 150,000 signatures to get Apple to reverse course.

Apple's issue really has been access to its commerce platform and the types of technology it will allow on its devices. Developers crow about how long it takes to get their applications accepted on iTunes.  Personally I don't have a huge problem with this - it means someone is actually looking at what's being presented on their platform.  Their house, their rules.  The problem comes when they want to be the "standard" - standards should offer the most choice possible, and iTunes doesn't.  Resultingly there are other, more open platforms that developers are increasingly choosing.  What I don't understand is Apple's take on "flash" animation technology.  Apparently using this technology in websites and the like places a greater burden on processors and drains the battery more quickly. So Apple won't support technology that reduces the performance level of iPhones and iPads. They're essentially trying to dictate what developers and website designers do on sites that have nothing to do with Apple. As a consumer, I think I'm more than capable of monitoring battery life, and I'm not sure how limiting the number of websites I can fully utilize helps Apple.  It's also arguably a restraint of trade issue - leveraging their dominance in one market (devices) to dictate the terms or channels of distribution of other markets.  Microsoft had those criticisms years ago.

The real risk is that one of these companies will (unintentionally) do something so stupid, so brazen, so outrageous that it will result in an enormous backlash and we'll see social networks and platforms regulated in ways that begin to resemble regulation of utilities.  Regulation can create as many unintended consequences as arbitrary and automated terms of service.

There's no silver bullet but there's one option I can think of that would be a good start - require anyone bringing a complaint such as copyright infringement or obscenity or anything else to confirm their identity and contact information. That shouldn't be too hard to implement, and it has worked in our justice system.  It would also likely reduce the number of embarrassing news stories we've seen over the years.

If you've read all the way to the end of this, I'd love to know what you think...

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