The Facebook Bug and Why it Bugs Me

Posted by · July 5, 2013 4:01 pm

ericpete is a former newspaper editor, occasional low-level Expert and basketball junkie who has spent over 13 years at Experts Exchange, and has spent much of the last decade editing the EE newsletter.

The freedom to make a fortune on the stock exchange has been made to sound more alluring than freedom of speech. — J. Mortimer

FacebookIn this issue’s column, Nata has an item about a Facebook bug — now fixed — that allowed your updated information to be shared by anyone who has outdated information about you — even if you’ve blocked that person. In building the fix, Facebook locked the door to the systems that were essentially building via cross-referencing massive amounts of non-advertising related information — what the article Nata linked to called a “dossier” — on everyone who uses Facebook, and probably includes information on people — like me — who have deliberately avoided typing anything close to into an address bar.

There are a couple of things that yank my chain about what they’re doing.

The first is Facebook’s invocation of the “free speech” defense for it allowing people to get updates to other people’s information. The free speech clause in the first amendment to the US Constitution is specific: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech…” That means the government can’t restrict the right of people to say what they believe, but it only applies to what the government can and cannot do. Facebook isn’t bound by it; it can restrict speech as much as it wants to, and it seems to have no qualms about letting whatever it wants run rampant, as long as it doesn’t violate the terms of use.

That bothers me because my third-cousin-twice-removed has no inherent right to reveal to anyone my personal information. More importantly, he has no inherent right to reveal it to people who I have said I don’t want knowing it. And most importantly, he has no right to unknowingly reveal it to anyone who hides behind a law that says “you have to tell us, but you not only cannot tell Eric about it, you can’t even tell him that we asked demanded the information from you”. Facebook doesn’t have those rights either; they’re not even a party to the information. It’s like the post office opening up your phone bill and telling everyone in town to whom you’ve been making phone calls.

The second is that I’m not a Facebook member and have no intention of ever becoming one. I don’t click on links to Facebook pages — even my mother’s, Experts Exchange’s or my wife’s. I’m not part of the massive group of people to whom the advertising on Facebook is directed, and I’m not part of the massive amount of data that is part of the bill of goods sold to advertisers. In short, I’ve done almost everything possible to keep my existence unknown to the company (unless they read the not-infrequent rants about how evil they really are), and to avoid any interaction with them. So what gives them the right to [theoretically] keep any information about me?

I know, I know. Facebook will say that if I’m in some member’s address book, then Facebook has the right to use that information within their guidelines and privacy rules blah blah blah, just like Google can use information it finds about me to send me “relevant advertising” (talk about an oxymoron). But I actually use Google; that’s my implied and even explicit permission to use whatever data it gathers about me in the process, and since nothing on the Internet is a secret, they can even use something someone says about me. That makes Facebook’s use of the same argument a straw man; it doesn’t apply.

Of course, I have no easy way of knowing if Facebook has a file on me. I have no idea who — if anyone — has uploaded my name and address as part of their address book. I have no idea who — if anyone — has tagged a photograph of me (even if there’s no Facebook account to link such a tag to). I certainly wouldn’t be terribly surprised if there’s a list somewhere of “people in the tech industry who keep saying they’re never going to ever be on Facebook” — but it’s probably just an inspirational tool for employees.

It’s also one more reason while I’ll never have a membership.