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Why You Can’t Just Ask Social Media To Forget You

While we now have a clear picture of the challenges current social media pose to peoples and cultures, what to do is unclear

In an earlier post, I argued that moving toward private groups is not a useful strategy (because social media still control the input). Another proposed solution, sometimes enacted as law, is to control the data social media rely on to generate value—that is, the information they have about users, which they can, in turn, sell to advertisers. Will that help? A number of proposals are on offer:

The most basic proposals would allow users to view, download, and delete any information that a social media network has about them. Many services already allow users to do this but the resulting files are often “multiple gigabytes big.” That said, Stan Horaczek explains how you can download what social media and information brokers know about you. But, he cautions, “Set aside lots of time and extra hard-drive space.”

Ned Ryan argues that data sovereignty can solve the problem of social media, saying: “The individual’s personal data is sovereign to the individual and individuals have the explicit right to control that data.” By treating personal data as private property, he hopes to allow users to control its use by social media services.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital advocacy group, argues that adversarial interoperability can help. Forcing social media services to store information about individual users in a standard format would enable users to carry their information among different services, creating competition.

All of these solutions have one large flaw: What social media networks know about an individual user is not just the information the user put into the system. Social media networks also infer a number of traits as well, such as what brands and kinds of items they like to purchase, where they like to vacation, their political and religious beliefs, etc. Social media services also develop a view of each user’s social network, particularly who influences the user, who the user influences, and what communities they are a part of. At least three problems arise:

The first problem with handing a user “their” data is that the social media service has inferred all this additional information by expending resources, particularly computer, storage, and networking resources that consume power, space, and engineering time. The labor and expense spent on developing information beyond what the user originally put into the service technically belong to the service, not to the user. The company will protest that it should not be forced to give up or delete information developed via the organization’s resources towards building a profitable business. This private property claim is not addressed by these proposals.

A second, related, problem is that sending at least some of this information back to the user may expose private information about other users of the same service. For instance, if the service informs users about their influence on third parties, it would be exposing information about that third party which can be considered private. There is no simple way to disentangle the information so that nothing private is ever exposed.

A third problem is even if users ask the service to “forget” them, there is no obvious way to for a service to totality forget. A user’s information is not held in a single record that can just be deleted. If one user responds with valuable information to a post by another user, and then asks to be forgotten, should the response be deleted? If the user finds a new (and valuable) connection through the service, should the user be required to delete any contact information learned through the service when asking to be forgotten? There are no clear answers to these kinds of questions.

Demands to be forgotten and demands to download all the personal information that any social media service has may solve part of the “social media problem.” But they clearly cannot solve “the whole problem.” Users themselves must learn more about the tradeoffs in using these services and take responsibility for intelligent choices about how and when to use them.

As with many problems that have both technical and social components, regulations might be a good start, but we cannot count on government to solve all the problems of new social media.

Also by Russ White: Will Facebook’s new focus on “community” groups prevent abuses? When you look a little closer at the proposal, you will see that the answer is no


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Russ White

Russ White has spent the last 30 years designing, building, and breaking computer networks. Across that time he has co-authored 42 software patents, 11 technology books, more than 20 hours of video training, and several Internet standards. He holds CCIE 2635, CCDE 2007:001, the CCAr, an MSIT from Capella University, an MACM from Shepherds Theological Seminary, and is currently working on a PhD in apologetics and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Why You Can’t Just Ask Social Media To Forget You