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February 5, 2012

About those “Facebook revolutions”
Posted by Patrick at 07:44 PM * 32 comments

Noting the propensity of “social” Internet services to pat themselves on the back for their role in various uprisings against oppressive regimes, an activist in Bahrain politely asks these companies to please extract their collective head from their ass.

Many prominent internet companies brag about offering services that help people “connect” with one another, making information more “open” and “transparent” and that they seemingly promote freedom of speech, access to information, and are sympathetic to the various struggles for human rights.

It therefore baffles me how little consideration they have for those individuals who need to be protected online especially if they use the internet as a resource to engage in risky (but necessary) activities. Anything from discouraging anonymity on the likes of Facebook and Google+ to requiring legit photos on sites like LinkedIn, not realizing that some of us live in areas where human rights advocacy is not just frowned upon but severely punishable by our governments. Anything you do to protect yourself—these companies consider to be against their “user agreement” forcing you to reveal sensitive information, making this field 10 times more dangerous just so these companies can be more “relevant” and therefore profitable. The problem is that we can’t just simply quit these services. We need them as tools to empower our work.

Every other week I’d get an email from an internet service stating that my account has been deleted or disabled.

Why? “You’re not using a real photo.” No, I use an avatar, which they deleted, and then another avatar, which they also deleted, and attempted to keep it empty, which they didn’t allow, and then finally resorted to just having a logo—but uh oh! Disabled again. This is despite my several attempts at communicating this to customer service reps at these companies. They couldn’t care less. Regardless of what their CEOs say at tech conferences. Irrelevant. They do not abide by these values when it comes to managing their companies and reviewing their user agreements and privacy policies. Do we matter?

If these activists actually mattered as much as the titans of “social” claim they do, their problems and needs could have been addressed in ten minutes, years ago. Companies with the size and cash-flow of Google or Facebook could put a team of 100 people onto this and figure out how to make the necessary execeptions by lunchtime tomorrow. It’s obvious what actually matters to them.
Comments on About those "Facebook revolutions":
#1 ::: Evan ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2012, 08:10 PM:

Ten minutes, quite right. Strongly related: Jamie Zawinski's technical proposal for how to support pseudonyms: http://www.jwz.org/blog/2011/10/eff-declares-premature-victory-in-nymwars/

#2 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2012, 08:59 PM:

Half the people posting non-Facebook comments at newspapers are using pseudonyms; I wouldn't bet that there aren't pseudonyms on the Facebook ones, too.
(Every time I read something claiming that 'using real names' will make comments more polite (or whatever euphemism they're using this month), I feel like pointing them at the Facebook-only comments.)

#3 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2012, 09:26 PM:

And Twitter announcing they'll censor in countries like China and Iran just made me classify them with the bad guys they serve.

#4 ::: lightning ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2012, 12:40 AM:

"If you're not paying for the service, you're not the customer -- you're the product"

Unfortunate but true.

A while back, after one of the earlier LiveJournal kerfluffles, I did some preliminary design on a LJ-like system that would be completely anonymous, based on FreeNet. The amount of interest I got was zero, or even negative ("Don't do it; it's a Bad Thing!")

Considering that most Internet users can't be bothered to encrypt their e-mail, no matter how sensitive, I'm not optimistic.

#5 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2012, 12:40 AM:

I think it's clear that none of the policy-setting class at either Google or Facebook has ever had to be concerned about political persecution or police misconduct. IMHO that prevents them from understanding the meaning of "social" in a context other than the upper or middle class in a First World country (i.e. in a context that represents less than 5% of the population of the world).

#6 ::: The Raven ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2012, 01:51 AM:

Isn't this one of the reasons The Disapora Project exists?

Now, there's a big problem; on FB or G+ one can hide like a needle a haystack. There's millions of users. Diaspora is small, and pods can be blocked and suborned. But then, both FB and G+ are data-mined by the whole world.

In any event, here is where to look.

#7 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2012, 08:26 AM:

The Raven #6: Indeed, it is possible on FB or G+ to hide in plain sight. G+ has not stopped me from using my (quite legal) initials, rather than my first name. But then, I've published two books and several articles as F.S.J. Ledgister.

On Facebook, I know of one person who is present under a pseudonym. One he uses elsewhere on the net. It's been no trouble for him so far.

#8 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2012, 10:04 AM:

lightning @ 4: Considering that most Internet users can't be bothered to encrypt their e-mail, no matter how sensitive, I'm not optimistic.

The problem with e-mail encryption is that you can't do it by yourself. You have to convince the people you e-mail to do it, too -- which means you've got to explain the concept to them, convince them that it's worth it, and then teach them how to implement it (with the appropriate plug-ins for whatever e-mail program or website they use). Depending on the level of tech knowledge of the people you e-mail, this can be an uphill battle, and it may not be worth the extra time.

It's a related problem to leaving a privacy-invading social networking service. You can't do that by yourself, either.

P J Evans @ 2: (Every time I read something claiming that 'using real names' will make comments more polite (or whatever euphemism they're using this month), I feel like pointing them at the Facebook-only comments.

YES. Facebook-only logins to newspapers have proved one thing: people are not afraid to say horrible things under their own names. At all.

I wouldn't bet that there aren't pseudonyms on the Facebook ones, too.

A whole lot of my friends are using pseudonyms on Facebook. They're pseudonyms that could plausibly be real names if you didn't look too hard, but they are definitely not these people's legal names, nor even nicknames they use IRL.

Maybe I'm too cynical, but I feel like the only reason to insist on Real Names Only, rather than allowing people to use persistent pseudonyms, is to aid in selling user info to advertisers -- or in helping a government track people.

#9 ::: beth meacham ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2012, 10:52 AM:

Interesting. FB has my real name, but the "real photo" icon I use is not of me. And mostly photos of me are hidden. Use the "who can view" setting of "only me".

So far, no problems. There's more going on there than policy.

#10 ::: Nanette ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2012, 11:58 AM:

Caroline #8
"Maybe I'm too cynical, but I feel like the only reason to insist on Real Names Only, rather than allowing people to use persistent pseudonyms, is to aid in selling user info to advertisers -- or in helping a government track people."

You're not cynical, you are intelligent. If I weren't old I would worry about my privacy. By the time they get down to coming for sedentary me- I'll be dead. Very freeing. I wish the rest of you all the luck in the world. :)

#11 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2012, 12:06 PM:

Bruce C., #5: Or, for that matter, about being stalked online by someone they had serious reason to think might kill them (in a non-political context). Frankly, I'm a little surprised that Zuckerberg hasn't had a cyberstalker yet, but apparently not.

Caroline, #8: A lot of my Facebook friends are using pseudonyms as well. Many of them are "real names", but names which belong to their favorite fictional characters. I use a cartoon avatar as my Facebook photo, and I don't let anyone tag me on other Facebook photos. Never had any problems. There's something very hinky going on with all this.

#12 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2012, 12:08 PM:

That icon I use in FB and G+ is of the real me. Don't you think I look like I belong on George RR Martin's Throne of Swords?

#13 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2012, 12:41 PM:

LinkedIn deleted my logo, which I use because it's what I use everywhere, and is far more instantly recognizable as me than an actual photo would be. (Not to mention, more pleasant to look at.) ::sigh::

#14 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2012, 01:34 PM:

Lee @ 11

It may be that the policies are intended not to ensure that users can be tracked by marketing companies and restrictive governments, but are intended to give the perception that they've opened their networks to marketing companies and restrictive governments. That way,when China or the US Department of Homeland Security insists on getting the real names of their users, they can say they allow that, while at the same time reassuring their users that they're not doing anything new that threatens privacy.

[Degnoming note: Remember to put a space after your commas, dear people. Not only must we be more interesting, engaged and persistent than spammers, we must also be more grammatically and orthographically correct. Or you make the baby gnomes cry, and we don't want that, do we? -- ASRFS]

#15 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2012, 02:16 PM:

Xopher @3:

I think there's a distinction to be made between Twitter's actions and the things that Esra'a makes in the post Patrick quotes.

Twitter is blocking tweets in specific countries to comply with the legal regimes in those countries—but they're doing it traceably and reversibly as possible:

We haven’t yet used this ability, but if and when we are required to withhold a Tweet in a specific country, we will attempt to let the user know, and we will clearly mark when the content has been withheld. As part of that transparency, we’ve expanded our partnership with Chilling Effects to share this new page, http://chillingeffects.org/twitter, which makes it easier to find notices related to Twitter.

Tweets blocked in one country will still be readable in the rest of the world. With a good proxy, an in-country reader can probably access them as well.

The reality is that, in order to operate in certain countries without their staff being arrested and their resources seized, Twitter has to buckle down and obey the laws of those countries. The alternative solutions are to delete the tweets in question globally, or not operate in those countries at all.*

Contrast this to the Real Names policies and petifogging userpic rules, which have no legions of secret police or legislators behind them, nor any promise to report to Chilling Effects. That's corporate shenanigans, and I think Esra'a has good grounds to complain about it.

-----
* I still have problems with Twitter -- I want to know what the heck happened with the #ows hashtag, which seemed significantly absent from view at the expected times.

#16 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2012, 03:09 PM:

Lee:

I suspect the sort of problems you have with stalkers once you're a widely known multi-millionare are so different from those of ordinary people that there are few lessons that cross between those two situations. Among other things, most people can't respond to stalkers by hiring professional bodyguards and having state-of-the-art security systems installed in their homes and offices. On the other hand, most internet stalkers have no deeper motive than satisfying their own inner demons, whereas very rich people are probably far more a target for rational but evil goals like extortion or kidnapping for a profit.

And notably, staying off the radar via anonymity is simply not in the cards for Zuckerberg, so it probably doesn't look much like a solution to him.

#17 ::: nerdycellist ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2012, 03:13 PM:

I am one of the many FB users who has been using a 'nym for the last three years. Several other people on my pretty small friends-list are also using 'nyms (at least I assume they are). I'm guessing if no one reports me I'm safe. I doubt anyone on my f-list would report me, but I suppose if a FOAF didn't like the cut of my jib, they could have my FB page shut down.

The silly thing about "real names" is how do they verify? If it came down to sending in any ID papers, I'd go ahead and let them close my account with no tears shed. Otherwise, who's to say that names like "Amanda Hugankiss", "Ophelia Quickly" and "Dick Trickle" are not just unfortunate REAL NAMEs? What good can eleventy billion John Smiths be to marketers?

Also, I have a somewhat uncommon first name that doesn't often get linked to my common-in-Poland-and-Chicago last name, yet there is still one other Me floating around the world. Evidently, she's a doctor who lives in Italy and runs marathons. She's already got my Real Name on Facebook.

But this is all down to Privilege again. At the moment my country is not actively trolling for dissenters (or in my case, minor gripers) on Teh Internetz, I am not trying to avoid stalkers or abusers, I do not have any children whose identity I am attempting to protect. All these social networks are backing up their BS Real Name policies in an entirely random and arbitrary fashion. Like the writer of the article above, I am deeply suspicious of Social Networks claiming credit for revolutions, when every day they do their level best to ensure that can't happen.

#18 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2012, 03:13 PM:

abi:

A big issue with the Twitter stuff, though, is that when per-country censorship is a supported option, it becomes a lot cheaper and easier to use. I'd rather have it be a pain in the ass for Egypt to prevent content it doesn't like on Twitter without blocking it altogether, since that seems almost certain to lead to fewer countries blocking stuff.

#19 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2012, 09:07 PM:

Companies with the size and cash-flow of Google or Facebook could put a team of 100 people onto this and figure out how to make the necessary execeptions by lunchtime tomorrow.

Or they could put 4 people on it and solve it today.

#20 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2012, 01:08 AM:

albatross @18:
I'd rather have it be a pain in the ass for Egypt to prevent content it doesn't like on Twitter without blocking it altogether, since that seems almost certain to lead to fewer countries blocking stuff.

I'm sure you would, and I would, but Egypt really doesn't care. If it's not easy to block content they don't like, they can just block Twitter altogether. China did. Various countries have blocked all of YouTube over individual videos.

Twitter is still a commercial entity, and the prospect of being wholesale blocked in a particular country is a pretty high-level operating issue. I still maintain that this is a very different thing than Facebook and LinkedIn's messing about over icons, or Google+'s nymwars, whose marginal profits are much more ambiguous.

#21 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2012, 09:12 PM:

Lee @11:

Or, for that matter, about being stalked online by someone they had serious reason to think might kill them (in a non-political context).

I had the misfortune to bring this point up in conversation offline (re: Facebook doing one of its "hey, suddenly a data-point reveal is now opt-out rather than opt in, and your stalker ca find you now!" tricks) with someone I had not yet realized had all the empathy of a banana slug.

"Well, you can hardly feel sorry for them, right?" she said ("them" meaning "the person legitimately concerned about being stalked"). "I mean, what did they expect?"

Seeing. Red.

#22 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2012, 09:23 PM:

abi:

Yeah, they're different flavors of badness. And I recognize the business reason for wanting to get some business, even from countries intent on censoring the internet. But as this becomes easier and more of a default option, more and more countries will start using it--the cost has gone down, and as more countries do it, other countries will follow suit, because it won't be "We are joining Burma, Bahrain, China, and North Korea in blocking this service," but rather "like most every country, we impose certain limits on what filth and sedition can be seen by our citizens."

#23 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2012, 09:55 PM:

Nicole, you know what I say to people like that?

Nothing.

Ever again.

#24 ::: shadowsong ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2012, 10:25 PM:

Nicole @21: I know how that conversation should have ended.
>Nicole punches banana slug in the face.
>Banana slug wails, "Why did you do that?"
>Bystander says, "Well, what did you expect would happen? Hmph."

#25 ::: Pyre ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 08:08 PM:

It turns out that if you are in a country where Twitter censors tweets, you can circumvent the censorship by the simple technical trick of resetting your country to a different one in the Twitter settings, overriding any IP default.

#26 ::: Pyre ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 08:56 PM:

albatross, #16: "And notably, staying off the radar via anonymity is simply not in the cards for Zuckerberg, so it probably doesn't look much like a solution to him."

Make it "pseudonymity," however, travel under a cover name and with a slight disguise (at least sunglasses), and such a person is likely to feel much safer in public. Otherwise, private jets and limos are the way to go.

"Dr. Steel" actually has retired from music now. One of his songs foretold his going "On the Run":

Fake ID cards and I've got a new disguise
And I hope I go unnoticed because no one's seen my eyes
I slide through in public view...
I become the everyman and fade away
Just like a chameleon I rearrange my style
Moving past security I nod and flash a smile...

#27 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 13, 2012, 08:51 AM:

Top 6 Facebook annoyances and how to fix them. Note that at least two of these are "fixed" with browser apps. That is, people are actually sinking creativity into, and sharing around, external filter programs specifically designed to neuter Facebook's "features".

#28 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: February 13, 2012, 02:59 PM:

David H., #27: Thank you. Although it appears that I've sidestepped several of those issues by (1) keeping my Facebook page friends-only and (2) blocking all apps and "partnership sites".

#29 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 13, 2012, 03:27 PM:

Also, Google's new privacy policy. Haven't had a chance to examine it closely, but it's in fairly plain English and makes a try at enumerating the types of information they collect from you.

#30 ::: Marc Mielke ::: (view all by) ::: February 13, 2012, 04:29 PM:

I have never used a real photo for my FB profile. In the last year, I have used: Dex-Starr the Hate Kitty from RED LANTERNS, Cthulhu, Sol Invictus, and my anthropomorphic cat character from Skyrim.

I don't expect anyone to be fooled by any of these, but I don't want potential thousands of people to turn to stone/go insane from my hideous visage.

Haven't had a problem with FB yet. I hate selective enforcement.

#31 ::: Kevin Marks ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 09:29 PM:

Enforcement will always be selective at sites like this - Facebook boasts of having over a million users per engineer.
So most pseudonyms, photo violations etc will go un-noticed, until some other user flags them or complains.
Which makes it pretty obvious for dissidents etc that they will be flagged for review. If they're lucky, then someone from EFF or CPJ will make the exception case for them to FB directly.

The 'breastfeeding photos' incidents are example of this kind of griefing too.

#32 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 11:54 PM:

Xopher @ 23 - That's pretty much the strategy I've employed with this particular banana slug. Although shadowsong's suggestion @ 24 has huge appeal, I have to admit.

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