So what is Facebook, anyway?

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock these last few months (apparently high speed broadband is being rolled out to rocks ‘soon’), you’ve probably heard of social networking websites like MySpace and Facebook.

These websites allow anyone with an internet connection to upload photos, videos and an almost limitless amount of information about themselves (relationship status, date of birth, political views, favourite football team) to a profile which they can then share with their friends and other site users.

MySpace is the loud, brash, colourful one. Facebook is the more presentable site, with a slightly older demographic think teenagers versus twenty-somethings. It has around 27 million users. Facebook was created for Harvard students in 2004 by fellow student Mark Zuckerberg, who is now 23.

Facebook quickly spread beyond Harvard to other US colleges. In September 2005, high school students were allowed to join. By December 2005, Australia and New Zealand had been added to a network of 2000 colleges and 25,000 schools worldwide.

Then, in September 2006, the site was thrown open to anyone with a valid email address. Although some users were upset by this move, as it ended the exclusivity of the site, it began a period of exponential growth for Facebook. At present, somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000 people are joining each day. Those are big numbers in anyone’s language.

But what does one actually do with Facebook? I decided to take the plunge and find out for myself. Starting from the first registration page, I was asked for my full name, email address and the usual password and birth date questions. After confirming my decision to join the site, I was asked to provide my email address and password so that Facebook could search my address book for friends who were already registered. A small note promised that Facebook would not ’email anyone without my permission, nor store my email and password.’

I was not happy about this at all. But for the sake of doing this properly, I entered the details. To my surprise, 65 of my friends were already using Facebook. A quick flick through the list showed I only recognised around half the people there. So I invited the half I did know (plus Malcolm Turnbull, just to see what happened). Facebook then told me that I had 1122 people in my address book who were not part of Facebook but would I like to invite them?

I drew the line here, but many do not and it is through this simple invitation system that Facebook has grown so quickly since 2006.

This prompted me to look at Facebook’s privacy policy, as I wondered what happened to those emails collected. This said that Facebook stored the information from the one-time trawl of my address book. If a person wants to have their name removed from the list of invitees from my address book, they have to email Facebook to request removal from the database.

To quote from the privacy policy:

If you choose to use our invitation service to tell a friend about our site, we will ask you for your friend’s email address. We will automatically send your friend a one-time email inviting him or her to visit the site. Facebook stores this information to send this one-time email, to register a friend connection if your invitation is accepted, and to track the success of our referral program. Your friend may contact us at info@facebook.com to request that we remove this information from our database.

So even if a person never wants anything to do with Facebook, a careless friend could in theory invite them, and in so doing hand over their address. Which they promise not to use.

A screen shot from a Facebook profile

But a growing number of people are deeply skeptical about the uses Facebook may make of the information users provide in their profiles.

One piece currently doing the online rounds is the video ‘Does What Happens in the Facebook Stay in the Facebook?’ created by US web designer, Vishal Agarwala. The video highlights the more dubious elements of Facebook’s privacy policy and terms of use, such as the assertion that Facebook has the right to re-use any content posted to the site for self-marketing purposes, and that the site:

may also collect information about you from other sources, such as newspapers, blogs [and]instant messaging services in order to provide you with more useful information and a more personalised experience.

At the same time, there’s a lot of (less sinister) detail the video leaves out, and much of its impact relies on the deadpan, slightly surreal, tone of the narrator.

More interesting are the questions Agarwala raises about how Facebook is funded questions which have also been raised elsewhere. The very first venture capital invested in the site totalling $US500,000 came from Peter Thiel in 2004. The founder and former CEO of Paypal, Thiel also has strong ties to the US neo-conversative movement, is co-author of the anti-multiculturalist book The Diversity Myth and a Board member the ‘radical conservative group’ VanguardPAC.

The next $US12.7million came from venture capital firm Accel Partners. Like Thiel, Accel General Partner, James Breyer, has strong links to the neo-conservative movement, having served on the Board of the National Venture Capital Association (NVAC) with Gilman Louie, CEO of In-Q-Tel, a venture capital firm established by the Central Intelligence Agency. Also on the Board of NVAC is Dr Anita Jones, who has served on the Board of Directors for In-Q-Tel and was previously the Director of Defense Research and Engineering for the US Department of Defense.

At first sight, the sources of funding for Facebook are a little alarming. And when coupled with Facebook’s privacy policy, which states that the company ‘may share your information with third parties, including responsible companies with which we have a relationship,’ the picture begins to look more disturbing.

The question of ownership is an important one. Zuckerberg now owns only around 30 per cent of the company, having sold of portions of it to raise capital for continued expansion. While he is still presented as the happy, thong-wearing face of Facebook, behind the scenes, it seems that he no longer pulls the strings.

Perhaps the moment has passed for the Rupert Murdoch-owned MySpace b
ut not so Facebook. Last year, Yahoo offered Zuckerberg $US1 billion for Facebook. He refused. Then Yahoo offered $US1.6 billion. Zuckerberg refused again. Meanwhile, Murdoch recently offered to swap MySpace for a 25 per cent stake in Yahoo.

While researching this article, I stumbled across an interview with Zuckerberg, conducted by the university newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, in which he comes across as the archetypal nerdy college student who hits upon the killer idea and makes gazillions of dollars from it, all the while promising not to ‘be evil.’ Think Jerry Yang of Yahoo, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin and, going further back, Steve Jobs and even Bill Gates.

I don’t think Zuckerberg is quite as naïve as he presents. On the other hand, perhaps he did not realise the usefulness of the information being provided to Facebook until the site started growing exponentially, and a clever, recently-hired marketing chap pointed it out.

Facebook is no longer a DIY start-up company. While there may be no over-arching plot to keep track of personal information and data through the platform, the potential to do so exists. The typical user provides an exhaustive amount of information about themselves. There may well be no cause for paranoia but the background of those who have invested in Facebook does deserve to be noted.

Given the volume of information that Facebook gathers, the question of who has access to it is an important one. A Privacy International report on the privacy policies of some of the biggest websites in the world think BBC, Google and MySpace gives Facebook its second lowest ranking.

Were a more robust privacy policy instituted, the growing army of bloggers signalling concern might have their fears put to rest. If you join up, be a bit picky about what you tell Facebook, and don’t let it scan your address book. Enjoy it, but keep it at arms length, and remember that it does track your data and web usage.

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New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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