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Combating Facebook

February 20, 2011

The state and the media should throw money after a Danish discussion network rather than surrender completely to Facebook, so knowledge of Danes are in Denmark and the Danes can debate protected under European Personal Data

I am skeptical about Facebook. From both a societal and a media standpoint and especially from the civil point of view. Facebook has been a game changer, has created a sensational new ingenious tools and has been the standard bearer for the spread of social media, which I salute loudly. But there are many good reasons why we – including media companies – now should put a heavy foot on the brake, think anew and act differently. Denmark is among the countries in the world who has the most Facebook users in proportion to population. There are three reasons, I believe:

1) No Danish companies have been good enough to develop a good alternative. They have in Japan where there are three other big networks with 20 million users each and Facebook with less than two million users.

2) Danish media have promoted Facebook completely uncritical. Especially the state-owned Danish Broadcasting Corporation.

3) Facebook has only to follow U.S. law. If a Danish company had tried the same thing under European law, it had been stopped by the Data Inspectorate.

Yes, Facebook has been an invaluable tool for democracy struggle in Egypt. And in many other countries. But it’s also Twitter. And Flickr. And YouTube. And Google. And many other brilliant digital tools. Yes, we should be where the Danes are, and that is mainly on Facebook. It’s true. But we should not be naive and completely surrender to Facebook without thinking about long-term alternatives.

Unreasonable Conditions

Unlike many other tools, Facebook leaves us with completely unreasonable conditions to participate in its network. As an individual you give up all your rights to the content you put on Facebook. Facebook requires of you at signup that you waive your right to your own content. Facebook is therefore entitled to sell everything about you – including photos – to third parties without having to get your consent to it – because you’ve given it in advance by creating an account. This is where the American Privacy Act is much looser than the European Personal Data Law which requires so-called active consent before reselling information to third parties. So, that 7 out of 10 Facebook users are worried about their privacy is completely justifiably.

As a media company, you entrust the copyright to your and your employees’ content to Facebook, and when users discuss your content inside of Facebook rather than on your own site, you give away information about your customers and your potential customers. How should you eventually be better at serving your clients when it’s Facebook, not you, who knows what they want?

Finally, the society also has a problem. Roughly speaking, Facebook today knows more Danes than we do through CPR registry or other public databases – except perhaps from taxation and health information. If we get there, why do we have European laws designed to protect personal data?

We should get together

Arto – a Danish network – is losing more and more users to Facebook. The Norwegian Nettby from VG, which otherwise was densely populated, closed because it gave up to Facebook.

Isen’t it about time that Danish media got together and created an alternative? Yes, the state could help. The state could throw 100 million kroner in the network annually and help create a viable discussion forum for the Danes, so we could keep our personal data under a law that our democracy has created. Then there was perhaps also a chance that Facebook doesn’t grab the other half of the digital advertising dollars that Google has already led out the country.

We have not been good enough to beat Facebook, a greatly innovative company. And we never will. But we can certainly try.

Anyhow, I strongly recommend doing as I have done it, though it is against Facebook’s guidelines (or shall we call it Facebook-law) that says that you must operate under your real name. Create a pseudonym on Facebook, so Facebook can not connect your data and actions in the network up to your true identity (In Japan, the users also use pseudonyms on social networking sites). It will protect you – although you still have to be careful with what you send out the web of sensitive personal information. And your friends will probably remember your fake name, anyway.

PS I wonder whether the news media could not work more closely with Facebook rather than simply use their bid to generate traffic. Yes, it would be a good idea, if Facebook would. I went to Facebook’s headquarters in San Francisco in May 2010 and asked them whether they had plans to make revenue sharing with media companies like Google does with their search tools. The answer was no.

PPS I’m using my real name on Twitter (@ Pernille), but Twitter is not a network that ask you to use it private and personal purposes.

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