Debrief: Internet Research 11.0 Conference (Gothenburg, Sweden)

Last week I attended Internet Research 11.0: Sustainability, Participation, Action, the 11th annual  conference for the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR), in Gothenburg, Sweden. This is the conference I look forward to the most each year, thanks to the steady stream of stimulating presentations by both young and established Internet scholars, and the opportunity to enjoy time with many close colleagues and friends.

This year, I participated in three main events: a pre-conference workshop on “Ethics and Internet Research Commons:  Building a sustainable future”, a session on “Networking and Social Sites” where I presented a paper on “The Laws of Social Networking, or, How Facebook Feigns Privacy”, and a panel discussion titled “On the Philosophy of Facebook“. Details below…

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Ethics and Internet Research Commons:  Building a sustainable future

This pre-conference was organized primarily by Elizabeth Buchanan, and featured brief talks by Charles Ess, Alex Halavais, Annette Markham, Malin Svenningson, and myself. We presented case studies that revealed key ethical challenges and identified important components of ethical decision making for Internet researchers, including:

  • How does cultural specificity define research ethics and regulation?
  • What constitutes a public text online and in what ways can and should they be used in research?
  • Why do we consider firewalls and passwords to be the “gold standard” for determining if something was meant to be kept public or private?
  • How do researchers work towards the imperative of sharing data while adhering to human subjects regulations?
  • What ethical guidelines should be applied to trace data?
  • How do researchers handle “closeness” in ethnography in ethical ways?
  • What oscillations take place when a researcher is first known as a member of a group and then as a researcher?
  • How is “empirical imperialism” affecting research ethics?
  • What are the virtues of deception?

An excellent summary of the entire day is over at the Internet Research Ethics project website, which includes links to my slides.

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The Laws of Social Networking, or, How Facebook Feigns Privacy

I participated on an excellent session titled “Networking and Social Sites”, which also featured Robert Bodle and Christian Thorsten Callisen.

Bodle’s presentation, “Opening the social media ecosystem: the tenuous nature of interoperability, crossposting, and sharing among dominant social media sites, services and devices”, explored the values, characteristics, and conditions of interoperability between Facebook and its third party developer ecosystem. He found that while Facebook’s APIs provide new ways to share and participate, they also provide Facebook a new means to achieve market dominance, as well as undermine privacy, data security, contextual integrity, user autonomy and freedom.

Callisen’s talk, “The Old Face of ‘New’ Social Networks: The Republic of Letters”, was a historical contextualization of the so-called digital revolution within the longer history of “the virtual”. He showed how the Republic of Letters was essentially a networked virtual community for the reciprocal sharing of information, complete with its own techniques for simulating co-presence, protocols for information transfer and interaction, and varying levels of transparency and encryption.

My presentation, “The Laws of Social Networking, or, How Facebook Feigns Privacy”, was an expanded thought piece inspired by this blog post, where I suggest three natural laws that thwart attempts to provide users of social networking sites sufficient means to control their information flows:

  • The first law is somewhat obvious: Social networking sites are incentivized to promote the open and unfettered flow of mountains of personal information.
  • The second law, perhaps more of a corollary, follows naturally from this: Providing users robust and easy-to-use tools to control their personal information flows is counter to this profit maximization motive.
  • Thus, the third law: Provide users privacy controls only when you must, and position them as both a great a sacrifice, as well as something users probably shouldn’t bother with; make privacy hard.

To support this argument, I discuss various public comments by Facebook’s management team, and show how the laws become encoded within the design of Facebook’s architecture and recent privacy “upgrades”. I concluded that the existence of the laws of social networking create — and perpetuate — a great power imbalance where users lack robust privacy controls, leaving them with limited ability to manage their personal information flows.

The rough text of my remarks can be downloaded here, and my slides are available here.

As an aside: I found it amusing that the most tweeted comment from
my talk was a completely off-the-cuff remark criticizing Facebook’s claim that users have control over their information simply due to the existence of privacy controls. I noted that all the controls to fly  a 747 are in the cockpit too, but that doesn’t mean anyone can fly a 747.

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On the Philosophy of Facebook

Recognizing that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has built his social networking empire on the belief that “information wants to be shared“, a particular philosophy of information that directly impacts the values built into the design of Facebook, ranging from its user interface, privacy policies, terms of service, and method of governance, I organized a panel to explore the philosophy of Facebook and its broader implications for norms of privacy, identity, governance, sociability, and online life generally.

I was lucky to welcome the following speakers to IR.11 to discuss this important topic:

Unfortunately, we only had 1 hour (!!) for the panel discussion, but it was a very good 60 minutes; one of the few times I’ve heard Marx, Hegel, Kant, Rawls, Deleuze and Guattari, etc discussed at length at AoIR. We concluded that perhaps an entire pre-conference on the topic is in order for IR.12 (in Seattle in 2011).

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