Ex-Apple Engineer, Peter Warden, has collected public fan page data from 215 million Facebook pages, revealing current trends, such as ‘God’ being the number one most popular fan page among Facebook users in the Southern U.S., whereas ‘Barack Obama’ featured heavily for San Francisco users, and ‘Starbucks’ was number one in Idaho. Warden plans to release this data to the academic community because he sees great potential in the data that can be extracted from these sites. This process is called data harvesting. The article suggests future academic work in this area is likely to occu impacting on people’s privacy. (FACTS – 100 words)
The ETHICAL issue central to this article is privacy and control. On one hand, Warden claims his intentions are altruistic (helpful to others) and that the data he is making visible here is a matter of public discourse. However, the FACTS are that individual users who are generating this data have neither been consulted about the data collection nor have they given permission for Warden to use it. Clearly Warden does not VALUE other’s people’s privacy as much as he WANTS (emotion) to create the website. The argument could be made that once a user ‘becomes a fan’ of a page on Facebook or, indeed, publishes any content to the internet, that information becomes public. User who have deployed privacy settings to carefully maintain a strong sense of control over their profiles, however, might well feel very ANGRY about this use of their data. Facebook can harvest that data (and does, for targeted advertising purposes) because they have a commitment to those advertisers (emotion)and engineers like Warden can develop data-trawling engines to collect accessible information across a massive dataset. The LAW needs to be much clearer about the rights of consumers, companies and advertisers in these situations.
As Facebook is presumably bound by its own set of critically considered ETHICAL guidelines, these are neverthess underpinned by commercial VALUES and a vested interest (emotion) in keeping the data of its users from competitors. Warden claims to be operating under his own set of ethics that privilege (value) the furthering of knowledge. The issue then shifts to the academic community. Warden contends that one of his central motivations for collecting this data was so that he could share it with the academic community. Although this claim may be true, most (if not, all) Universities have clear ETHICAL guidelines for research that explicitly VALUE and therefore require consent from participants. If none of the users gave consent for their data to be collected in this way, this in effect denies them a sense of AGENCY. Thus, academically, this data is tainted.
While its implications are important the trends it makes visible are crucial to understanding the localised structures of social network sites like Facebook. Personally, I would believe people should be able to tick a box that gives consent for the use of their personal material. I do not believe, either, that it should be one of those boxes you are obliged to tick before being able to use a site: that removes my personal AGENCY and I VALUE this very much. It should be up to me to decide whether other people get my data. If this sort of system was in place, everyone would know the FACTS, everyone would understand what is going on and no one would feel (emotion) betrayed or exposed unfairly.