Tuesday, April 19, 2011

after the tragedy, which way forward?

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Residents of Rio de Janeiro state enjoyed February with the lowest rates of homicide since statistics started to be recorded in 1991. There were 368 killings in the second month of 2011, compared with 473 in February 2010 – a 22.1 percent drop, according to Rio’s Institute of Public Security (ISP).

For the complete version of this article, please visit The Rio Times.

Friday, April 15, 2011

facebook... have we lost control?

I remember being a freshman at Tufts University and having my best friend sign me up on this “really cool new thing.” In late 2004, Facebook was a private space for communication with a select group of friends. Suddenly it became a platform where our information was made public by default – visible to our friends, their friends and their friends’ friends. Today, as a member, we have no choice but to allow certain information to be public and shared with Facebook’s partner websites.

While Facebook is easy to use, and certainly brings simplicity to many of our casual relationships, figuring out our relationship with Facebook itself may be more complicated. One thing seems certain: we may not have as much control as we think we do.

SIPA colleagues told Communiqué Facebook is “invasive,” “evil,” it has “no boundaries,” “no privacy,” and “I hate it – it’s the worst thing in the world.” But the technology is relatively neutral, right? And whatever “evil” it may do – isn’t that just a result of users’ behavior? Well, not entirely.

You may think Facebook doesn’t know what you personally don’t tell it. Not true. The settings allow others to share information about your life and “tag” you to it – link your profile to whatever information they’re sharing, whether in a image, video or a status update – without your consent.

One person told me of a friend, who a couple of hours after giving birth to her first child, saw pictures of her newborn on friends’ profiles (think about the fact that this baby will essentially grow up online, with photos from the day he was born). Another friend was distressed because pictures of her private wedding were broadcasted online during the party.

Both women could take the unsympathetic route of “untagging” themselves – the images would no longer be linked to their account, but the information would still be accessible to others in the network. They could risk seeming paranoid or unreasonable by taking the extreme step of asking their friends to delete the photos.

Finally, they could “report abuse” to Facebook (likely to no avail, since in a country where the law does not require the removal of unauthorized photos for privacy reasons, including the U.S., Facebook “will not remove unauthorized photos at your request.”).

What about the information you don’t know Facebook shares about you or allows others to share about you without your explicit consent? “We are building a Web where the default is social,” said founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg in 2010. This means much of our information is public by default and that we have to opt out if we wish to keep it private. Facebook just forgot to tell us about it.

I recently went from having nearly 150 photo albums on my account to zero. After editing album by album to allow only friends tagged in the pictures to view them, my settings were magically changed to “everyone,” twice. For weeks, 500 million+ users had access to what I naively believed to be private.

Maybe it was my fault. Maybe I should have read Facebook’s policies more carefully. But who knows how to navigate its settings? The site’s privacy policy has grown from 1,004 words in 2005 to 5,830 words in 2010 – longer than the U.S. Constitution, without amendments. Users need to navigate through more than fifty settings with over 170 options to effectively manage privacy settings. And even then, you may still not understand what is going on.

Even if you change all of your settings to private, if you fail to check the right tabs (ie, “Applications and Web Sites” and “Facebook Ads”), Facebook allows your friends to share your name and personal information with third party web sites and applications. Did you know that?

I don’t want to delete my account – note that if you deactivate your account, Facebook saves your information “in case you want to come back at some point.” I want the reminder for my friends’ birthdays, the invitation to events and the connection to childhood friends, former bosses and professors.

Here’s a crazy thought: why not make all information private by default and ask for permission prior to sharing anything about us? So if we feel a sudden urge to share everything with everyone we will actually have to work for it – navigating through fifty settings and 170 options.

This article first appeared in the April 12th issue of Communiqué.

Graphic Design: Michelle Chahine.