Presider: Tyler Crabb

Habermas argues that a healthy public sphere can only grow from a relatively autonomous private sphere.  The maintenance and development of this public sphere is of prime importance to the health of an open society, but this era may be passing.  The development of online social networks challenges the integrity and usefulness of a distinction between the public and private spheres.  Perhaps this distinction is imploding, with future civic  and commercial life simultaneously public and private, populated by cyborg citizens.  The private sphere is now public in many important ways.

Analysis of Facebook affords the opportunity to negotiate the contours of this historic transition, the opportunity to find empirical evidence and conceptual nuance to develop much needed social theory.  This panel will explore transformations in personhood, privacy, property, justice, capital, commerce and other foundational issues; issues which are of obvious importance beyond Facebook’s 500,000,000 users.


Anthony Hoffmann (@anthonyhoffmann), “Me, not mine: Facebook, ontic informational beings, and the problem with information as property”
The concept of information property is central to Facebook’s overall philosophy of information. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly insisted that, on Facebook, “people own their information and control who [sic] they share it with” (Zuckerberg, 2009, para. 2), a sentiment that is explicitly codified in the site’s governing documents (Facebook, 2009). However, the concept of personal information as property is not uncontroversial. Legal scholars have pointed out the difficulties with reducing subjects to informational objects (Cohen, 2000), as well as the problems with developing privacy protections based on property law (Litman, 2000). In this paper, the author argues that the concept of personal information as property is not only legally difficult, but philosophically problematic as well. By examining the nature and attributes of personal information developed within the context of social networking sites like Facebook, the author develops a conceptual definition of information property that can be compared against three Western philosophical conceptions of property—Locke’s natural law and its libertarian descendants, utilitarianism, and Hegelian personality-based theories. In the process, it becomes clear that certain attributes of personal information (for example, the lossless nature of information in general, as well as the constitutive nature of personal information) resist easy philosophical categorization as property according to these theories. Instead, the author suggests that the Humean declaration of private property as unnatural (i.e., governed by moral norms and social convention rather than natural law) points the discussion in a different direction. For Hume (and, later, for Rawls) the concept of private property is constrained by a given society’s conception of justice. Therefore, we must first establish a framework for informational justice before we can begin to address the relationship between Facebook users and their information (and, in turn, develop a theory of property that properly reflects the nature and attributes of personal information). Last, echoing the legal problems with reducing subjects to informational objects, the author draws from work in the area of information ethics to demonstrate how Facebook users may be positioned as ontic informational beings in-and-of-themselves (Floridi, 2008), and are not necessarily reducible to the kind of quantifiable information objects that may be considered property. As a result, the author demonstrates that the last step—from a framework of information justice to a theory of information property—is unnecessary and that users, as informational beings, ought to be considered simply within a framework of justice and human rights, and not within one of property and ownership.


Stephen Lilley, “Facebook Members’ Complicity with Commercial Transparency”


Facebook has over 500 million members (22% of all Internet users) who spend over 500 billion minutes a month on the site each sharing roughly 70 pieces of content a month (Rosen, 2010). With these staggering numbers it is not surprising that Facebook has become a rich venue for advertisers.   Critics charge that advertising revenue is generated by exploiting social actors’ proclivity to form and maintain social ties.  Facebook counterclaims that we as a society are loosening our standards around privacy and becoming more transparent in our lives as we get used to sharing information about ourselves. Mark Zuckerberg claims that this is the greatest transformation in our generation (The Economist 1/30/2010).  Further, he would have us believe that the social actors in this revolution willingly expose themselves and their Facebook friends to commercialization.  Is that the case?


Research Study

We pose the following research questions: To what extent are Facebook members attentive to commercial data sharing policies?  Do they favor such policies and the social ideal of transparency?  We conducted our survey in December, 2010 on the campus of a private university in New England.  Our purposive sampling of undergraduates yielded 372 students, of which 349 (94% of the sample) had a Facebook account.  On average members had an account for four years and used Facebook six days a week, three hours per day.  Respondents were asked to self-report on 1) the importance of Facebook to their social activities, 2) the level of their consumer activity on Facebook, 3) their knowledge of Facebook advertiser data sharing practices and their attitude toward such, 4) their use of sharing restrictions and the groups targeted, and 5) their assessment of transparency benefits, reputation risks, and consumer risks.

In general, members were disinterested and inattentive to Facebook’s consumer/advertising features.  Respondents were much more likely to indicate that Facebook is “very important” or “absolutely crucial” to sustaining friendships (56%) than it is for exposure to good things to buy (10%).   Three Facebook provisions for sharing profile information with advertisers were described in the questionnaire and approximately one half of the sample admitted not knowing about them.   Seventy-two percent of Facebook users have not controlled which of their information is made available to companies that host applications, games, etc., when friends use them.   Of the twelve sharing restrictions listed on the questionnaire, respondents reported employing few restrictions, with twice as many utilized to target friends (average of 2.4 restrictions) than for advertisers/marketers (1.1 restrictions).

Most members, however, expressed opposition to Facebook data sharing policies.  When prompted to provide their opinions about Facebook’s sharing their data with advertisers, approximately 50% answered “strongly oppose” or “somewhat oppose,” 40% selected “don’t care,” and only 10% favored this.  Approximately 80% see a reputation risk in using Facebook, 65% see a consumer risk, and 60% believe that a potential transparency benefit is not worth exposure to these risks.

Facebook delivers consumers and their rich social information to for-profit enterprises.  Facebook users are complicit in this, however, in our study we find ignorance, disinterest, ambivalence, and some concern but very little enthusiasm for this role. They are not so much proactively expressing the ideal of social transparency as they are simply not bothering to resist commercialization via Facebook. We conclude our paper by discussing the implications.


Jason Treit (@tagfu), “Interpersonal Commons”

One of social media’s recurring tensions is that between privacy norms and commodification of data. “You own your data” is a drumbeat behind numerous campaigns to defend privacy. From the other direction, ownership claims are taken to justify rights-reassigning terms of service and aggressive data mining. These efforts to assert and reassert possession, each grounded on a similar model of data as private property, quietly constitute a double overreach into the interpersonal commons.

As it has for cultural works, the data ownership model mistakes social life as a series of resource transfers between private hands. The habit of attaching a possessive pronoun to the contents of many minds suggests a tangle of broken claims within that group. What you know of me, once ascertained, is either ‘yours’ to reuse or ‘mine’ to reclaim: no room is left for ‘ours’, a space governing unowned things, where future choices to share or withhold turn on norms and negotiation. Worse, the logic of ownership tends to standardize against informal, overlapping claims on resources, even where informality and overlap may yield advantages to groups not represented in the rights discourse.

Another view recognizes how the spaces and connections between individuals more closely resemble a commons than a series of private enclosures. Sharing – the diffusion of knowledge through these channels – does not close off future reuse. Rather, sharing is a trusting surrender of perfect control. This need not point to chaos: the fieldwork of Elinor Ostrom shows the viability of real-world commons, from Nepalese irrigation systems to open source software projects. Ostrom’s principles of sustainable commons map well to two distinct but related ideas for privacy tagging by Jonathan Zittrain and Aza Raskin, respectively. In contrast to the Facebook status quo of (often illusory) privacy controls, these new proposals share a goal of being declarative and non-coercive: signs that specify intent rather than barriers that prohibit. As such, they rate to enrich the interpersonal commons that is social media, promoting respect for individual preferences without overestimating the reach of private claims upon knowledge.