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Harrop: Many don’t ‘like’ Big Brother’s new face

Published: Monday, Feb. 13, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, Feb. 13, 2012 9:52 a.m. CDT

My, how you’ve changed, Big Brother.

What happened to the sourpuss in “1984,” George Orwell’s grim novel about a thought-controlled future? Gone are the piercing eyes and the perennial threat: “Big Brother is Watching.”

You’ve had quite the fashion update. I like how you dress in T-shirts and sweats, just like the proles. I like your boyish grin. No longer a tyrant without a name, you’re now Facebook’s founder and supreme leader, Mark Zuckerberg.

The old Big Brother sought to conquer and oppress. You exude benevolence as you explain in perfect Facespeak: “Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission – to make the world more open and connected.”

Stock analysts are valuing Facebook as high as $100 billion. That would make your social media company worth more than Caterpillar, Ford or Kraft Foods. The interesting part is that you have absolutely nothing to sell except information about your members.

To justify such a lofty price, Facebook will have to rake in a lot more than it now collects. How will you do that, Big Brother? By finding new ways to extract information from members and sell their digital rap sheets to marketers and other interested parties.

But how will you ramp up the surveillance level? You already know our Facebook conversations, our friends’ identities, links we share and the things we “like.” If we should change our relationship status to “engaged,” you sell that information to wedding photographers who beam ads at us. If we use your service to visit other sites on the web, you know what we did there. Naturally, you know where we live. You know our age, gender, diseases and perhaps fascination with certain porn stars.

The danger for the empire is a mass uprising against being watched. A competing enterprise could offer users shelter from your gaze. Of course, only the oldest among us recall the misty past when personal information was stored in metal cabinets with locks on them. And many may enjoy hitting the “like” button on a post about Kanye West, then having an ad for an upcoming Kanye West concert appear on their page.

The rumblings of resistance, however, are unmistakable.

Facebook recently settled with the Federal Trade Commission over changes it made to its privacy settings without obtaining users’ consent. They would have put our pictures, hometown, friends list and other information in the public eye. This upset some of us. But you patiently explained the changes offered a “simpler model for privacy control.”

Variations on the word “simple” can be Facespeak for compromising one’s privacy in return for convenience. As Google recently wrote to users, “We’re getting rid of over 60 different privacy policies across Google and replacing them with one that’s a lot shorter and easier to read.”

Members of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee looked into this simplification and didn’t quite enjoy the vibe. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, complained that Google “danced” around the details while going on and on about its efforts to “enhance the user experience.”

Collectors of our data like talking about “people,” “power” and “sharing.” As Big Brother Zuckerberg wrote, “By giving people the power to share, we’re making the world more transparent.”

But while transparency might be a plus in corporate financial statements and government programs – and reports on what’s really happening on the streets of Damascus – must it be applied to bra size?

Friends, time for full disclosure. Yes, I’m on Facebook. And yes, I’m not far from deleting my account.

Big Brother, I know you’re watching and hope you’d let me.


• Froma Harrop is a member of the Providence (R.I.) Journal editorial board.

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