The danger in privatizing our publics

Nearly a year ago, I published a paper (and much shorter, accompanying op-ed and later, a talk) on how Facebook and other social media sites are becoming the new public sphere, despite their being privately-owned spaces. Just a few months later, their popularity exploded as the real-life revolts in Tunisia and Egypt were echoed on social media, bringing new questions to the table around privacy, anonymity, and free expression.

Now, in light of ongoing events in Syria and the UK, as well as new regulations in India and elsewhere, not to mention the Google+ policy on identity, those questions are once again taking hold. In a piece for Forbes published yesterday, Benoit Raphael (who generally covers some pretty fascinating stuff) notes the shifting tide toward a lack of anonymity and posits:

The real question should be: now that Facebook, Twitter and Google+ have become public spaces where people can meet to share or to protest, is there a danger in housing theses public places in the exclusive hands of private companies? If “Internet” is a new country, then who will protect freedom in its public places?

His question is not dissimilar to those posed (and answered) by Rebecca MacKinnon. Who will fight for user rights in the quasi-public spaces of the Internet?

First, I think, we require an increased awareness amongst users of what that really means. Not a week goes by where I don’t get an email from some user of Facebook, or Google+, or YouTube, or even Zazzle or CafePress who has had their content removed, and is outraged. And while I often share those users’ outrage, I find that, for the most part, they haven’t read the Terms of Service and aren’t aware of exactly how restrictive the rules of these platforms are (which, for the record, is generally far more restrictive than the Constitution of the United States). So, before can get the “consent of the networked” (to borrow the title of MacKinnon’s upcoming book, which I have already pre-ordered), we need to ensure that the networked are aware of what their movement toward the quasi-public sphere really means for privacy and expression.

Further reading:
Zeynep Tufekci’s oldie but goodie: Facebook: The Privatization of our Privates and Life in the Company Town
danah boyd: “Real Name” Policies are an Abuse of Power

2 replies on “The danger in privatizing our publics”

Twitter, Facebook and google+ each offer social media platforms which could be offered open source. has almost the same feature set as twitter but a much smaller audience.
The move to a more open social media platform (a more “public” one, if you will) is not a far-off fantasy but instead requires a concerted effort. Imagine a Mozilla foundation for such social media platforms. Imagine celebrity buy-in, which seems to have helped twitter enormously. Imagine
a world in which people migrated to places not bombarded by ads. This is a much easier set of things to imagine than the things in the John Lennon song.

I use each of these private social media, and tweet much more than I post at
But I can see a real virtue to platforms which are more “open”, as your post’s central questions support. But thjs will take movements and a determined agenda, and I’m not sure those exist yet

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