Why I love Facebook’s seamless sharing

Recently a number of articles have decried recent Facebook changes allowing seamless sharing of information. Using Open Graph, several news sites such as the Washington Post and the Guardian have released “social reader” Facebook apps. These apps, once enabled, allow Facebook friends to see the articles you have read in much the same way that Spotify shows friends songs you have listened to.

Molly Wood at CNET released a scathing article entitled “How Facebook is ruining sharing.” Molly insists that sharing and recommendation shouldn’t be passive, and this sort of passive sharing will “overwhelm our interest and deaden us to the possibility of organic discovery.” I would argue that the exact opposite is true, that seamless sharing improves organic discovery.

Seamless sharing improves organic discovery

How many times have you been sitting in a car with a friend and heard them play a song you liked? Prior to the advent of the smartphone, you would have to remember the name of the song, then at a much later point in time, download it… if you could remember the name. Spotify now allows you to see what your friends are listen to and quickly try the song or artist yourself. Spotify for me has quickly become an easy way to explore new music that I never would have heard of without this service. While initially there was a chorus of boos from people complaining about the lack of privacy this spread, this chorus quickly faded as those who demanded more privacy found the option to stop sharing.

How was news promulgated prior to seamless sharing? You might receive an e-mail from a friend with “Fwd: FWD: Fwd: FWD” appended to the front of the title. Often you’d find that some people never shared anything of value. This might be an elderly relative who only sent fake inspirational stories or urban legends. In the end, many drew the same conclusion that I did. These forwarded e-mails were generally marked as unread and never opened.

The new social reader is one of the first things that allows people to catch glimpses outside of the filter bubble described by Eli Pariser in his TED talk. Very quickly, I found myself catching headlines that I normally wouldn’t have read if not for the fact that another friend had checked out the link beforehand. Of course social readers might introduce some level of junk into your feed as certain friends read low-value articles about say Kim Kardashian’s recent divorce. However, just as in the past, these sources will be mentally filtered as you realize that specific friends might not have the most important contributions to your media digest.

The important thing here is that you are seeing things outside of your curated digest. I posit that when people are overly conscious of what they are sharing, in the end you miss out on information. Some of this information may or may not be useful, but with seamless sharing you get to make that decision. With curated sharing and without seamless sharing, people you follow make a decision for you.

Facebook privacy decisions

It is true that the default privacy settings in Facebook have become looser since its inception. As I have argued above, I believe that this creates more organic discovery opportunities. Nonetheless, Facebook has allowed for close management of privacy settings, allowing for users to manage their information in a relatively easy manner.

It seems many Facebook users do not understand the model under which they are using Facebook. As a Facebook user, you are allowed access to a powerful medium that allows you to connect to your social network in a way that has never been possible in history before now. Although you don’t pay any money to use its services, Facebook is not free. The cost is privacy. This is information is sold by Facebook to 3rd parties for cash. You control how much privacy you are willing to give up to use Facebook, and in exchange you get some degree of connectivity to the world.

As a frequent traveler, I am more than willing to give up more of my privacy in order to be more connected to my friends around the world. I love being able to see what my friends are reading and listening to on Facebook, because otherwise I would be totally disconnected from them for months at a time.

Facebook’s seamless sharing is another way for me to remotely participate in the water cooler discussions about recent news, which I would normally not be privy to being overseas. It allows me to be anchored in my life at home within my group of friends while working on the other side of the globe. It allows me to see the introduction of new members of my family when I am unable to be at the hospital for the delivery.

Others choose to severely limit or completely disable their Facebook accounts, as the benefit they gain is not enough to overcome the value of the privacy they give up. If you have never consciously evaluated the value of the Facebook product and how much privacy you are willing to give up to use it, you should. However, I think I and many others will agree that the benefit is significantly greater than the cost.

The True Intent of SOPA

The Great Firewall of China has been an inapt metaphor for the entirety of its existence. Its purpose is to keep its citizens in rather than to keep invaders out like the original Great Wall. Some will point to its exclusion of non-Chinese companies from the Chinese web space, but ultimately, the government was more than willing to play ball with those who were willing to compromise. The only thing the Great Firewall has in common with the Great Wall, is that they were both built to protect the builders.

Reasons Claimed by SOPA Proponents

The Great Firewall of America is no different. It is being built by the people who would benefit most from its construction. Just take a look at the witness list at the House hearing for the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA or H.R. 3261). 5 of the 6 witness list are outspoken advocates for SOPA. Most notable is Michael O’Leary, Senior Executive Vice President of Global Policy and External Affairs for the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America). During the course of the hearings, O’Leary made multiple fallacious claims that googling names of movies such as “J. Edgar” or “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” would return pirated versions of the movie. According to O’Leary, this link will show you lists of pirated versions of the movie. I’ll let you judge for yourself the veracity of his claim.

Many in support of the SOPA bill will claim that enforcement would be balanced and fair. They would claim that I am exaggerating the effects of the SOPA bill through hyperbole. During the course of the hearing, Michael O’Leary not only showed support for SOPA, but stated that “the Internet isn’t broken” in places like China and Iran. Wait. Isn’t China the home of some of the worst copyright infringement in the world? O’Leary’s statement must be made from either pure ignorance or to fallaciously support legislation that is not truly intended to protect against copyright infringement. When countries notorious for human rights abuse are held up as successful Internet models, it’s quite apparent that the Great Firewall of America is an apt name for the SOPA construct.

Let’s look at other potential motivations for SOPA. While the name of the bill certainly seems reasonable and desirable, how big of a problem is online piracy? The MPAA published this document about piracy in America. If you analyze their claim that there are $58 billion in losses per year from piracy and that 13% of all adults have pirated, you’ll find that the MPAA claims that your average downloader should be buying 200 more DVD’s a year. Lest we forget, the MPAA has a history of using hyperbole to defend its own interests. In his 1982 testimony, Jack Valenti, former President of the MPAA, stated the following to Congress,

“I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.”

Clearly the effects of the VCR on the media industry was poorly understood and greatly exaggerated by the MPAA. Videotape sales ended up being a significant new revenue stream for the MPAA for many years, even spawning the spinoff media rental industry which still exists today.

Failure to Understand the Internet as as Medium

During the hearing, it became painfully obvious that the proponents of SOPA simply do not understand the Internet as a medium. Representative Ben Quayle expressed concern that there were no successful business models that could survive without SOPA to prevent piracy. Yet services like iTunes, Netflix, and Amazon now represent some of the largest services in media representing billions in revenue every year. Furthermore, there have even recently been disruptive business models like Spotify which have been able to assert themselves in the environment that SOPA proponents claim is not possible to exist in.

It is apparent that proponents of SOPA like the MPAA are simply failing to adapt their business model as technology evolves. In the 1980’s, the MPAA fought against the VCR claiming concerns over about copyright violations. In the 2010’s, the MPAA is fighting against the Internet as a medium. The difference is, this time the stakes are much higher. SOPA’s scope extends far beyond alleged piracy. It creates a web environment almost identical to that of China that restricts internet access, which has recently been declared a human right by the United Nations.

The True Intent of SOPA

If the most recent hearing was any indication, the proponents of SOPA are not interested in working with the technology and Internet industries to find solutions to stem online piracy. When has a fair and balanced discussion ever been held when the debate is stacked 5 to 1? Supporters of SOPA clearly do not understand the Internet as a medium and are constructing a system in which the deck is stacked in their favor. As many tech giants have pointed out, SOPA is devastating to the technology and Internet industries. How long will we suffer the claims that media giants cannot make enough money, even as they are increasing their own compensation?

The Stop Online Piracy Act is being constructed to allow a stranglehold on the American Internet. Make no mistake. Its constructors are building it with this intent in mind. Just like the Great Firewall of China, the Stop Online Piracy Act is a misnomer. Hidden behind an innocuous name, the bill’s intent is not to stem piracy as its proponents suggest, its true intent is to control the Internet itself.

US Bill Creating the Great Firewall of America

History of Chinese Internet Censorship

In the western world, China has long been infamous for its human rights abuses. Prior to Deng Xiaoping’s re-opening of China to the west in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, these abuses were largely hidden from the West. With the advent of globalization, the PRC quickly realized the dangers of the internet to China’s fragile societal balance. Beginning in 2005, China began enlisting Western aid in Chinese internet censorship. Western companies like Cisco and Google have long abetted the Chinese government in establishing the so-called Great Firewall of China.

As Western social media developed, the PRC quickly recognized the power of these sites and moved to restrict its citizen’s access to these web sites. While some of these actions may appear to be antitrust behavior to allow local Chinese companies a competitive edge, make no mistake that the primary reason for censorship is the ongoing restriction of information from Chinese citizens. Nonetheless, as the Chinese web has developed, Chinese ‘netizens’ actively find ways around the Great Firewall and discuss social issues around the world. Numerous free tools such as Freegate, Freenet, and Vtunnel provide solutions for Chinese netizens to access the internet in the free world. As Chinese netizens find ways around the firewall, China has continued to step up its policing of the Chinese web.

The Power of Social Media in China

Over the past few years, more and more of China’s human rights abuses have come to light through social media. Ai Weiwei’s recent incarceration and the PRC’s bullying of Ai through gigantic back tax charges has resulted in Ai Weiwei speaking out about his incarceration. Using Google+, Ai was able to communicate methods of donation to help fight back against the $2.4 million back taxes claimed by the Chinese government. According to Chinese law, in order to contest tax charges of this nature, half of the sum must be presented as  collateral. In an awe-inspiring demonstration of the power of Chinese social media, Ai’s supporters around the world have already donated more than $1 million in 2 weeks.

Despite the outpouring of support from the West, Ai Weiwei is quick to criticize Western foreign policy.

“Today, the West feels very shy about human rights and the political situation. They’re in need of money. But every penny they borrowed or made from China has really come as a result of how this nation sacrificed everybody’s rights… With globalization and the Internet, we all know it. Don’t pretend you don’t know it. The Western politicians—shame on them if they say they’re not responsible for this. It’s getting worse, and it will keep getting worse.”

Unfortunately, Ai is more than correct in his assessment. Unfortunately, Western politicians’ short-sightedness extends beyond Chinese foreign policy.

Internet Censorship in the United States

On October 26, 2011, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was introduced in the House of Representatives. This bill aims to quell loosely defined “online piracy.” I’d like to compare SOPA to the Chinese web landscape by discussing the two major things that SOPA would do if passed.

1. SOPA allows for suspension of service prior to being found guilty

SOPA does away with the “safe harbors” defined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). These safe harbors allow some degree of protection for providers like Facebook, Youtube, and Google from liability for copyright infringement. SOPA would hold any site with user-generated content responsible. In Lenz v. Universal Music Corp., it was demonstrated that big media corporations have not considered fair use in the past when issuing takedown notices. In the SOPA world, the alleged rightsholder would be able to force former safe harbors to suspend service prior to being found guilty of infringing on rights. None of the sites that rely on user-generated content would be able to survive in this environment.

While China is not as concerned with IP laws as America is, there are obvious parallels here. The major Chinese Twitter-clone, Sina Weibo, is often forced to censor information without proof of guilt. This frequently involves blocking references to activists like Ai Weiwei who are trying to express free speech. The important point to note here is that in Ai’s case, he has not necessarily been proven to be guilty of anything prior to the repression of his speech. Similarly, whether or not the rightsholders’ property is being infringed upon, the alleged infringer would have to suspend services immediately.

2. SOPA allows the US government to blacklist web sites

Under Section 102 of SOPA, the Attorney General could order American companies from doing business with any alleged infringing web site. While proponents of SOPA have avoided using the term blacklist, make no mistake. SOPA allows the US government to blacklist websites.

If alarm bells aren’t ringing in your head yet, they should be. This is exactly what China has done with the Great Firewall. We have seen many times in China and recently in the Arab Spring that the censorship of internet is a strong component of the suppression of human rights. Recently, the UN has declared internet access a human right. SOPA would be infringing on American human rights in order to protect big media companies from infringement on their content.

Ultimately, SOPA attempts to control the American web space in the same way that the PRC suppresses human rights in China in the name of intellectual property protection. Look, at the end of the day, online piracy is a serious problem. However, SOPA is not the way to deal with it. If the DMCA needs to be revised to adjust to today’s web, then so be it. Let’s be clear here. This is not a slippery slope argument. SOPA puts in provisions that allows the US to control the internet the same way that the PRC does in China.

To  help fight this bill,

Contact your Congressmen

AND

visit americancensorship.org and show support for American Censorship Day tomorrow, November 16, 2011.