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Privacy on social networks: Do people really care?

The issue of privacy online has and always will be contentious. Since the explosion of the internet in the 90’s, our lives are increasingly spending online. With the arrival of social networking, this trend has increased exponentially. Privacy has and always will be a necessity for people, but when you’re online, where do you draw the line?

Facebook’s explosion onto the social networking scene has not been all smooth sailing. The social network has been a regular target for criticism as users have gradually seen their privacy eroded. As the years have progressed, the company has changed its policies in accordance with its size, and it’s mostly related to the growth of its advertising revenue model.

Facebook began with no advertising, and slowly as the numbers increased, it introduced advertising. The advertising eventually became “target-specific”, in other words: The advertising you were seeing was being specifically tailored for you.

This is the frontline of the privacy battle on Facebook. How could advertising be tailored to you without Facebook having your information? Facebook gives advertising companies your information in order for it to better place its adverts. This in itself is not any different from Google Adsense, but a social network is more personal and private than a search engine.

It’s important to remember that Facebook is a private company, and we as consumers are using that private company’s facilities. As such, if Facebook wants to make the network completely open and take away the remaining privacy you have, it has every right to do so. It has terms of use and many long-winded disclaimers about what it can and cannot do with your information.

The attitude to complaints about privacy could be summed up as “If you don’t like it, you are free to leave us”, as many corporations have done throughout the years.

But with Facebook’s exceptional and continued growth, the question needs to be asked: Do people really care about privacy? The network now stands at over 630-million users, with an estimated 300-million plus of those users online every single day. If privacy was such a major concern, wouldn’t people be shying away from the corporate giant in their droves?

Facebook grew and overtook its competitors — Myspace, Friendster, and the like — and pretty much left them in the dust. What alternatives would people have? Other than not using Facebook at all — the options are not great, for now. However, there are some potentially exciting projects in the pipeline.

The first is Diaspora. Recently, this new social network has received some press coverage, not for all the right reasons though. This is a crowd-funded venture where the founders received over US$200 000, some from Zuckerberg himself. Diaspora aims to be an open source social network, with its main focus on – you guessed it – privacy, which seems to be the Achilles heel of Facebook.

After recently releasing private alpha invites, the feedback hasn’t been all that great. Diaspora seems to be somewhat of a Facebook clone, only sparsely changing the interface and functionality. Time will tell what will come of Diaspora.

The second, and more obscure offering, is in the form of Canv.as. To understand what makes this so special, some background is needed. The people behind Canv.as are the same people behind 4chan — the anonymous forum and ICQ playground, most famously known for bringing the world the wonders of LOLCats.

Less famously, these are the same people who facilitated the creation of the group ‘Anonymous’, who infamously orchestrated the DDOS attacks against the Church Of Scientology for trying to censor information online. Recently they mobilised in defence of Wikileaks.

Not much is known about Canv.as, but it is said to be a completely anonymous social network, with a focus on privacy in the form of anonymity.

When these two projects are finally launched to the public, what will the reaction be? Privacy will always be an issue for mainstream users, and almost all online providers have come under fire at one stage or another for using consumers’ data in unethical or flat-out illegal ways.

Will privacy become a large enough concern for us to shy away from Facebook? Is the main reason why we are not doing so is because, simply, there is a lack of viable alternatives?