Facebook, In and Out

The announcement of Facebook’s upcoming IPO serves as an excellent chance to step back and assess the state of social networks and the information economy. The Times posted a suite of articles on the subject in their Sunday Review section, including an illuminating piece by Somini Sengupta on different countries’ approaches to online privacy:

Every European country has a privacy law, as do Canada, Australia and many Latin American countries. The United States remains a holdout: We have separate laws that protect our health records and financial information, and even one that keeps private what movies we rent. But there is no law that spells out the control and use of online data.

Highly recommended. It pairs well with Lori Andrews’ op-ed “Facebook Is Using You,” about the unseen uses for that data stateside. Such as: the ignominious practice of “weblining” turns your online activity against you in the form of demographic, geographic and behavioral profiling.

What’s worse, Andrews points out the lack of oversight and regulation in this space. If insurance and credit card companies are running actuarial tables on our online activity, how can we judge their efficacy? These algorithms aren’t held up to the test other companies face–namely, the test of the market–and so might err (again and again) where fair and unjust business practices prove mutually exclusive.

Even though laws allow people to challenge false information in credit reports, there are no laws that require data aggregators to reveal what they know about you. If I’ve Googled “diabetes” for a friend or “date rape drugs” for a mystery I’m writing, data aggregators assume those searches reflect my own health and proclivities. Because no laws regulate what types of data these aggregators can collect, they make their own rules.

I hope Congress can push for greater transparency. It’s tempting to exaggerate the pernicious effect of such an unregulated space, or tend toward alarmist conclusions. Instead, I’ll just say: we’ve all seen the failures in Amazon’s product recommendations after browsing for gifts. Can you imagine if those some mistakes, writ large, affected your insurance liability?

 

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