Copy ‘n’ paste or think critically about Facebook privacy?

By Anne Collier

This week’s Facebook vote is an interesting media-literacy lesson in the “power” of the copy-and-paste distribution of this digital age – and whether or not we truly buy into whatever it calls for at a given moment. You can certainly spread news and memes fast by telling people to copy your opinion and paste it somewhere – as Austrian law student Max Schrems did via his Europe-v-Facebook site – but could it be that those people are more spreaders than voters? I suggest, especially amid all the media of an election year in the US, we help our kids consider the difference.

Sometimes what Schrems offered his followers is disdainfully called “clicktivism,” but there is nothing inherently wrong with one-click voting or support; it just raises some important questions: Do I know enough about the source of the meme and his/her/its intentions, and what will my “vote” support – my interests or someone else’s and to what degree of each? [Clicktivism can be extremely effective when it complements social action – when it raises awareness and rallies people around causes about offline as well as online life. Certainly privacy on Facebook is about both online and offline developments, as was the SOPA legislation (see this), but clicktivism’s increase in convenience calls for an equally large increase in critical thinking – if not larger – because it’s so incredibly easy, sometimes fashionable, to click and “pass it on”! The biggest impact of the “Kony 2012” meme of three months ago, sadly, may’ve been that some 90 million viewers were misinformed (see this). The scale and speed of that meme’s growth was so recent and unprecedented that we don’t know yet what impact that level of misinformation can have, but it certainly raises concerns.]

Anyway, the FB vote I’m referring to, here, is a yes or a no to what TechCrunch calls “relatively benign changes” and Facebook calls “proposed revisions” to its Statement of Rights and Responsibilities (SRR) and Data Use Policy. Schrems forced Facebook to put the mundane revisions to a vote by “mobilizing his privacy group to flood Facebook’s Site Governance page with pasted messages, many more than 7,000 comments were received on the proposal – the threshold for triggering a vote.” So two things to note: those were pasted comments, not the pasters’ own thoughts, and the comments are about “sweeping changes to Facebook’s product rather than the small policy changes found in the proposal,” TechCrunch says. What was called for is not what the vote’s about.

[The voting period started this past Friday and ends at 9 am PDT on June 8. Whether or not they vote, I recommend that all users read Facebook’s explanation of the latest revision before voting, because they’ll get a helpful update on how the site handles their data.]

Schrems “has a contentious history with Facebook,” according to PC World. “Last year, he retrieved 1222 pages worth of his personal information from the social network and took issue with the fact that among them he found wall posts, messages, e-mail addresses, and friend names that he had previously deleted from his account,” but does he not understand that Facebook doesn’t delete what your friends post about you because that’s their content, just as what you post about your friends is your content – that privacy in social media is by definition a social, or shared, experience? I suspect Schrems does understand that but enjoys a lot of support from people who don’t understand the social nature of online privacy. In this Al Jazeera TV segment, he cites German and Austrian privacy laws providing citizens the right to take back content anytime, but he doesn’t mention whether those laws are current enough to address online photos that depict both the person who wishes to delete a photo and people who don’t.’s message and clicktivist methods deserve a solid dose of critical thinking too. They’re a little like disingenuous calls for a data “eraser button” here in the US: seemingly so well-meaning at face value. But when you think about it, what parts of a piece of content shared by more than one user can one user rightfully erase? That’s the burning question for privacy policymaking in a social media environment!

Related links

* An English-language interview with Schrems at Radio FM4
* “In social media, there is no ‘my privacy’ all by itself!”
*“Consumer Reports advocates for a law, not so much for consumers”

Disclosure: I serve as co-director of, a nonprofit Internet safety organization that receives financial support from Facebook, Google, and other Internet companies.

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