Facebook considered harmful?

Walking across campus this morning, I passed a couple dozen students with laptops open, sucking the wifi network. I wasn’t trying to snoop, but I noticed that well over half of them had browsers open to Facebook. It struck me that they are spending much of their time pumping content and data into a proprietary commercial venture. And they’re fine with it. I’m pretty sure they’re capable of understanding what it means to provide so much information about themselves – what they like, who they know, what they’re doing, the music they listen to, the books they read, their vocabulary, things they’re selling/buying, etc…

But, I fear they don’t actively think about what it means to give this personal data so freely to a commercial venture that has one singular purpose: to profit from their information, in any way possible.

And Facebook isn’t alone – we’re using Google Docs and the rest of the Google Apps suite, essentially teaching Google’s advertising engine with the most intimate and powerful data about ourselves. The Google Toolbar tracks what we search for, and what we see.

Universities are also guilty in this – we compel students to publish their content within the confines of the sanctioned LMS, where it can evaporate at the end of each semester. We provide them with email addresses, web space, etc… all of which evaporate when they graduate, and are not truly “theirs”.

It strikes me that an entire generation of our upcoming best-and-brightest minds are developing in an environment where they are comfortable not owning their own information, and even worse – they are comfortable with corporate entities mining every bit of minutiae about themselves in order to make a buck. In a “best case” scenario, these students simply aren’t aware of what this means, and this becomes an education issue. In a “worst case” scenario, they are aware, consenting, and active participants in this.

This scares the hell out of me. These students will be forming our governments in a few years, and running our companies.

How do we steer this ship onto a more wholesome, individual-centric course, where individuals not only want to own their own information, but also to effectively control who has access to it, and what they can do with it?

Why it’s important to “own” your content

I’m connecting the dots between two otherwise unrelated items that were in my Google Reader inbox this morning.

  1. Random Mind: USC Film Students Fight Back
  2. Dave Tosh: Data Ownership

The first article is about students at USC Film School realizing that the copyright for their student films belongs to USC. Which means they can’t do things like post their work to YouTube, or enter them at Sundance (without first going through channels to get approval from USC). I’m assuming that USC asserts copyright over student works because there might be a chance to monetize – it is Film, after all. Are there other examples of schools asserting copyright over student works? Why hasn’t this been flagged as an issue before this?

The second article is about data ownership and privacy wrt Facebook. Facebook owns everything that goes on, and in, Facebook. Because they own the whole widget, soup to nuts, they get to control what happens to and with our data. They can decide to expose, aggregate, process, and sell our data to third parties. It’s not really a free service.

Both articles emphasize the importance of owning your content and data. In an environment where you retain copyright for your own creations (ideally, sharing with something like a CreativeCommons license), you get to decide what you can do with your own stuff. Extend that to an environment where you are in control of your own personal data (or identity). OpenID and Sxip are both steps in the right direction there.

The bottom line is, when you give up ownership of your own content and data, you lose freedom.