Last week, shortly after Christmas, Randi Zuckerberg, the sister to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, took a photo of her family playing around with the new Facebook Poke app.
Though the photo was innocuous enough, just her family standing in a kitchen laughing at their smartphones, so Randi shared it on Facebook with, what she thought, was just her family and friends.
However, Randi had tagged another one of her siblings in the photo and one of her sister’s friends, Callie Shweitzer, assumed that the photo was public and posted it on Twitter.
Randi bit back, saying that “You reposting it to Twitter is way uncool” but accepted Schweitzer’s apology afterward. However, Randi, shortly after that, tweeted “Digital etiquette: Always ask permission before posting a friend’s photo publicly. It’s not about privacy settings, it’s about human decency.”
As for the photo itself, though Schweitzer deleted it, it’s since spread far and wide over the Internet, getting over three-quarter a million views on Buzzfeed alone, and the story has been covered by many mainstream media outlets, becoming yet another example of The Streisand Effect at work.
Most of the feedback has been extremely critical toward Randi but is she really in the wrong? It’s a complex situation that highlights just how difficult issues of privacy and copyright have become with Facebook.
To be clear, Facbeook, to which Randi was once the Marketing Director, has a very checkered history when it comes to privacy. As has been pointed out better by other critics, Facebook is a company that has pushed tirelessly to encourage users to post more and more content public, to make broader use of uploaded content (including for advertising purposes) and has been involved in controversies regarding user tracking.
Still, putting all of that aside for a moment, Randi Zuckerberg does have a point. Taking a friend’s photo on Facebook and reposting it publicly is poor form and it is also, most likely, a form of copyright infringement. After all, Randi holds the copyright in the photo and that was an unauthorized distribution of it.
Schweitzer should not have redistributed the image and was right to both apologize and remove it.
Ordinarily though, that’s where the story would end. An apology, a removal and a reminder about Facebook privacy settings.
However, this is not an ordinary case.
Not only is Randi such a controversial public figure so closely associated with Facebook and her brother Mark, but her response after the removal struck a nerve with many people. Calling upon “Human Decency” seemed to heighten the schadenfreude that many were already getting from the incident.
In short, Randi inadvertently stoked a smoldering fire and it quickly turned into a serious post-Christmas blaze.
The Problem with Facebook
The recent Instagram TOS debacle highlighted the problem with Facebook perfectly: People don’t trust Facebook.
Though most of Facebook’s nearly 1 billion users love what Facebook the site and service allows them to do, there’s no trust for Facebook the company.
To be honest, Facebook hasn’t done a lot to stoke that trust. The company has a history of being secretive and between confusing privacy settings, questionable privacy practices and a near-constant push for users to make more information public, Facebook the company has shown that it’s willing to put its interests ahead of its users.
How much of this has been a public relations issue versus an actual problem with the site is a matter up for debate. However, users perceive it as a real problem and, even though they continue to use Facebook, they find themselves feeling as if their trust is being abused.
Facebook has tried to help with this by streamlining their privacy settings and providing better education on how to use them. However, as Randi’s case shows, there’s still a lot of danger for content to reach unintended audiences.
Much of this is because Facebook has grown so complex and so multi-layered that it’s difficult to create simple and effective privacy settings. You not only have to control what you post, but also what others post and tag you in. Basically, Facebook isn’t a broadcast medium, but an interaction one where it’s not just your actions that impact your privacy.
Combine this with Facebook’s own actions, which are widely perceived as eroding privacy, and it’s easy to see why many are finding joy in Randi Zuckerberg’s problems. However, they aren’t just her problems, they are everyone’s.
Many people say that the solution to the Facebook problem is simple: If you don’t like what Facebook is doing, leave.
But it’s not that easy. For one, many people do have to be on Facebook, wether it’s for business or it is the only reliable way they have to stay in touch with people they’re close to.
But the bigger problem is that, even if you do leave Facebook, that doesn’t solve the problem. Your friends, family and coworkers are all on the site and they will have pictures of you, posts about you and information about you posted on there. Even ignoring Facebook’s account deletion policy, deleting your account does not remove you from Facebook.
If you’re a content creator, in particular a visual artist or a photographer, it’s safe to say that your works appear on Facebook, regardless of whether or not you put it there. While a lot of Facebook sharing is beneficial, a lot of it is also unattributed and likely does more harm than good.
In the end, Facebook privacy issues matter because, even if you don’t have a Facebook account, you’re on Facebook. If the control of private information on the service is something that Randi Zuckerberg is struggling to figure out, then what hope is there for anyone else?
It just goes to show that privacy is not simple when it comes to social networking and this is a problem we are likely going to be figuring out for a long, long time come.