It’s been nearly 10 years since college students first opened their Facebook profiles. And in that time, it has expanded out of college dorms nationwide to a multi-billion dollar juggernaut that connects everything in everyday life. But while Facebook has enriched consumers lives — providing a launchpad for reform and allowing us to keep relationships afloat long after their shelf-life — it has breached privacy boundaries unlike any other technological advancement.
It took months to spread from campus to campus after it first launched at Harvard University a decade ago today. Within weeks of joining, students were connected to lab partners, college and high school classmates and maybe even a few childhood friends. But since those early days, Facebook has been at the center of protests and scandals, sparking political reform or fervent debate around key social issues.
Democracy In Action
Tech-savvy activists have been using social media to both broadcast and organize their reform efforts. Facebook was instrumental in organizing Egypt’s protests against then President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Because of its unique ability to aggregate the internet and the world according to our personal connections, Facebook is essentially “democracy in action, or at least the closest thing we see in our daily lives,” CNN wrote of how Facebook was used in the Tunisian and Egyptian protests. That same year, Taiwanese medical professionals used Facebook to share their concerns about the country’s overcrowded emergency rooms in the wake of Japan’s 8.9-magnitude earthquake that triggered several tsunamis for the island. Reform for Taiwan’s health system was stagnant until the health department’s minister took notice, making rounds to hospitals and scheduling talks to garner more resources to aid them. Facebook’s knack for political and social organization is largely why it’s banned, or severely limited, in several countries, including North Korea, Iran, Cuba and China.
Facebook has had no small impact on democracy here in the United States as well, proving to be integral in the political process. For example, the site’s interactive traffic has been touted for its ability to predictelection outcomes and boost voter turnout. The radiating effect that encourages users to vote by donning “I Voted” badges on friends’ profiles has the potential to encourage other kinds of social action. It has also facilitated participation in organ donations. Facebook’s feature that allows users to list their organ donor status spurred nearly 40,000 new people to sign up for the program, according to a study from the American Journal of Transplantation.
A Decade Of Lawsuits
The sheer volume of data Facebook collects from its users — including status updates that were never posted — coupled with the company’s history of lax and confusing privacy policies has made it the center of the privacy debate. Facebook has dealt with dozens of lawsuits over its privacy tactics. For example, two users have sued Facebook for mining their “private messages” and selling them to third-parties. The company faced a class-action lawsuit in 2011 for using members’ pictures and information to promote “sponsored stories” on the site. The profile data was used without the users’ permission and allowed other companies to use it in their branding. Facebook eventually paid $20 million to settle the suit. The social network, which went public in 2012, is constantly being sued for trampling privacy rights. But despite having to dole out millions in settlements, the company consistently pushes the boundaries of where technology can and should go into consumers’ lives.
Big Data Is Watching
Companies can home in on details of your life and your spending preferences based on what you have in your profile. In fact, because its database reveals so much about users, intelligence agencies and law enforcement partner with Facebook. Beyond that, Facebook has empowered companies, potential employers and retailers alike, to pick and choose their audience. What you post can be used to assess your character. An off-color remark or provocative or inappropriate pictures have kept job seekers from landing a new gig. Even your friends’ social media choices — as minor as as typing in all caps or all lowercase — can affect you, as some lenders use a person’s Facebook connections to see whether or not they should get a loan. For small businesses, lenders look at their interactions with customers and number of ‘likes’ to determine whether to extend a line of credit. The Internal Revenue Service even scours the site to find anyone who may be cheating on their taxes. And even those Facebook-organized protests could be quelled as police increasingly search for inklings of criminal intent on the site.
It’s Facebook’s pervasiveness in linking every aspect of your daily life — from the music you listen to on Spotify at work to (possibly) using facial recognition software to tag you in a picture — that make it both intrusive and ingenious as a resource. But like it or not, Facebook has made the world more connected and reshaped the public’s expectation of privacy. In the next 10 years, it will likely get harder to freely express yourself on Facebook without fear of repercussions.
Despite an increasing infringement on consumers’ private lives, Facebook acts like a barometer, testing how far it can probe into users’ personal data before inciting backlash from its users and governments. As a result, businesses and tech companies will get smarter, learning from Facebook’s privacy blunders — and successes. They will get smarter at appealing to only you. And by staying one step behind Facebook and in its shadow, companies can explore privacy territory Facebook easily eroded without controversy and let it take on public discontent for going a step further.