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Cue the Hysteria

Facebook has had a rough couple of weeks. We’ve talked here several times about bouts of mass hysteria that pop up from time to time regarding the omnipresent social networking site, most of which have been entirely unsubstantial. This latest thing is more real than what’s been blown out of proportion in the past; this is not just another stupid rumor that Facebook will start charging $3.99 per month on July 15. The company unilaterally undid a whole bunch of privacy settings, and users should be paying attention.

What’s happened is that Facebook reneged on its much-ballyhooed privacy policy (developed after one of last year’s episodes of “Facebook is Evil”), and suddenly a whole bunch of stuff you posted about yourself that you thought was visible only to your “friends” is not only visible to everyone on FB, but has been shuttled off to folks like Microsoft, Yelp and Google, so now some of your info is out there for everybody to see.

Not that the reaction isn’t a little overblown, as usual. As we’ve mentioned here before, the privacy train left the station a long time ago. If you go on the Internet at all, your privacy isn’t what it used to be. Heck, if you walk the street of any city, or if you drive on an interstate highway, or generally get out of bed in the morning—or not—your privacy isn’t what it used to be. Clearly what FB is trying to do is monetize the boatloads of information that it has, and the companies paying for it will use it, directly or indirectly, to sell you things they think that you’d like to buy. It’s nothing new, really. Except info you thought would have limited access now has universal access.

So now there are calls for the population to en masse quit Facebook and breathy, hyperbolic articles about how awful Facebook is. In almost every article I’ve read, it’s mentioned that Facebook’s privacy policy is longer than the U.S. Constitution. To which I can only reply: “Yeah? And?” Apparently there’s a movie coming out about the origins of Facebook that paints founder Mark Zuckerberg as a creep and sex maniac. Yikes. He does and does and does for you kids and this is the thanks he gets?

And the user pushback is pretty fierce, albeit predictable. I’ve seen calls for someone, anyone, to develop a Facebook alternative where we can play without being seen, or something, and I guess there’s a date on which we’re all supposed to quit Facebook en masse, like a big virtual Jonesville Kool-Aid party.

Yawn. Neither of these things are likely to happen in any meaningful way. We like Facebook too much, it works too well, and we’re addicted to it. All of our “friends” are there.

In any event, it’s good to see people finally get a little agitato about their privacy, for once. While Facebook reportedly is coming up with a more streamlined way for people to tweak the user-defined privacy settings and to opt out of some of the more onerous sharing of their info, there are a number of tools out there you can use right now to understand what’s being shared by Facebook and how you can stop it. The best site I’ve seen in this regard is ReclaimPrivacy.org, which has a nifty diagnostic tool that tells you what’s going on with your FB account.

But in general, you (and especially your kids) should heed the words of my pal, media goddess Penny Perkins, who told the Times Union last week that she won’t post anything on the Internet that she wouldn’t mind seeing on a billboard on 787. It really is that simple.

Moving on! The MPAA, the large trade association representing the movie studios, appears to have stopped its ridiculous mass lawsuits against kids who download free movies online, but some indie studios seem to still be in the game. There has been a spate of new suits brought recently, apparently looking for quick-hit money from folks who’ve downloaded indie films including The Hurt Locker, Steam Experiment, Far Cry, Uncross the Stars, Gray Man, and Call of the Wild 3D through bit torrent and P2P sites. I’ve been contacted by a local guy who received a letter from his Internet company informing him that the company has been subpoenaed to reveal his identity to the moviemakers’ attorneys in a just-commenced lawsuit with more than 2,000 “John Doe” defendants. Which means he’s behind the 8 ball.

I’m reading reports that suits have been started against as many as 50,000 defendants, which is insane, but it’s too early to tell how much money will be demanded, or how flexible the attorneys will be, or how nasty they’ll get when somebody pushes back. Or why they think this totally boneheaded strategy is going to work out any better for indie studios than it did for the big boys. We’ll see!

—Paul Rapp


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