Facebook, identity, privacy, and portability

In the Web 2.0 world, we're seeing more and more of our data going into the hands of a third-party as well.

Gordon Haff
Gordon Haff is Red Hat's cloud evangelist although the opinions expressed here are strictly his own. He's focused on enterprise IT, especially cloud computing. However, Gordon writes about a wide range of topics whether they relate to the way too many hours he spends traveling or his longtime interest in photography.
Gordon Haff
3 min read

Facebook banned someone for using a pseudonym and he's upset.

Anonymous speech has a long history in the United States going back to at least the Federalist Papers. And there are many good reasons, in addition to well-established case law, why anonymous speech should be protected.

That said, very little of such speech on the Internet falls into "Allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical, minority views." (U.S. Supreme Court McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, 1995). Instead, anonymity on the Internet often seems far more about protecting rudeness than protecting political dissent. Thus, I have little problem with a service such as Facebook attempting to ensure that its members are using real identities. (See this post by Dennis Howlett for a largely dissenting view.)

This case does, however, raise a variety of points about identity, privacy, and closed social platforms that are worth considering given that we'll see these issues and others like them again and again.

First, there's the question of "What is your identity?" The straightforward, if somewhat glib, response is that it's the name in your passport--i.e. your legal name. That seems to be Facebook's position. But what of people who write under a pseudonym? Or, more broadly, people who have chosen, for whatever reason, to consistently adopt a different identity or persona for their private and their public lives. Or for different aspects of their public lives.

This is all highly relevant whether we're discussing the need for separate personal and professional networks or even what constitutes an appropriate avatar when using virtual worlds for business purposes. It's not so much about absolute anonymity as such (and therefore the ability to say or do things without consequence) as having mechanisms to have multiple, consistent identities that allow one to wall off parts of one's life from each other.

A point perhaps difficult for some in the radical-transparency high-tech crowd on one of the coasts to appreciate is that not everyone is comfortable with throwing most everything in their personal and business lives together. (Expect these sorts of discussions to gain urgency as the Facebooked and MySpaced generation increasingly enters the world of business.)

Another aspect of this case is the whole question of walled gardens and data portability. Establishing a dependence on some company's product is nothing particularly new. Almost uncountable dollars and hours that have gone into training, developing applications, and purchasing software for Microsoft Windows. And there are many other, if less extreme, examples. (Indeed this dynamic underlies much of the ideological basis for open source.)

However, in the Web 2.0 world, we're seeing more and more of our data going into the hands of a third party as well. And, in the case of a service like Facebook, it's not just data in the sense of files or text but an entire web of connections and interactions that have evolved in an essentially emergent way. Issues such as these were no small part of the discussion at the last O'Reilly Open Source Conference (OSCON) last summer.

Google's OpenSocial API is one reaction to the current lack of social data portability, but the problem isn't an easy one. Whereas traditional data portability is fairly straightforward (documented file formats, etc.), what it even means to have a portable social network isn't especially clear.

One of the reasons that questions such as these have some importance is that network effects--Metcalfe's Law if you would--tend to drive things towards a smaller number of bigger players. Although there's some natural partitioning (social networks for children, for example), the evidence suggests that one or two big networks in a given domain tend to win dramatically. Check out the traffic stats for Flickr vs. Zoomr. Thus it's not as simple as picking up your ball and heading over to the next field.

Even if you could pick up your ball.