commentary Over the weekend, I systematically deleted all of my data from out-of-control social networking site Facebook and repetitively requested that the site deactivate, delete and stop storing my account. And it's my opinion that other Australians should follow my example and delete their own Facebook accounts too.
In this article I'm not going to go into all the obvious global reasons why you should delete your Facebook account — privacy, security of your data and so on. Instead, I'll look at the corporate history of the social networking site's operations in Australia.
My aim is to get you to question: is Facebook making any effort — at all — to be a nice Australian corporate citizen and match its values to our own? Or is it completely ignoring them and considering us not worth paying attention to? So these are the five reasons why Australians should quit Facebook.
- Taking out but not putting back in: Facebook would like to make money from Australian advertisers, who are keen to market to the site's very strong local user-base. However, although Facebook has some 1400 staff globally, it is only known to have one in Australia — its sales manager for the Australian region, Paul Borrud.
Other technology companies such as Google (and even Microsoft) have large Australian presences, employ staff in Australia and depend on our country's technical capability. But not Facebook. All it contributes to Australia is taxes. We use its services. It collects money from our advertisers. That's as far as it goes at the moment.
- It won't cooperate with Australian police: just last week the Australian Federal Police's head of high-tech crime operations, Neil Gaughan, flew to the US to discuss concerns with other global authorities about Facebook not providing authorities with intelligence they need for investigations. An article on the subject described Facebook's relationship with Australian police as "hampering" its investigations.
When you consider the case about Sydney girl Nona Belomesoff who was allegedly recently murdered because she apparently went to meet two men she met on Facebook, not cooperating with police is a big deal. This sort of stuff is fairly basic: you obey the law.
For internet companies, it's important to know their rights — and Australians would expect them to. You don't just ignore police requests, and you can even go as far as Google recently did and publish how many requests from Australian law enforcement authorities you receive, and how many you don't fulfil. But it's important in general to have a cooperative approach — not an actively antagonistic one. Lives are at stake.
- Censorship: most people believe Facebook to be a pretty open forum, when in fact it's anything but. In mid-March, for example, Facebook deleted the group on the site belonging to "Grow Up Australia", a lobby organisation campaigning for an R18+ classification scheme to be implemented for video games in Australia.
The group, which had more than 37,000 members, was clearly a political lobby group, and it's hard to see how any of the content would be offensive. But Facebook still deleted the group (although it later reinstated it) without any advance warning or notice. It just deleted it.
The correct action for Facebook to have taken would be to contact the administrators of the group, who had put a lot of time and effort into it, and ask for their side of the story before simply responding to what appears to have been a complaint about the group. While 37,000 people might not be that much in terms of American political lobbying efforts, in Australia it's huge.
- It's a closed shop: it is almost impossible for an Australian, even an Australian journalist, to speak directly with Facebook or put questions to the company, even though it has an Australian presence. The company's Australian chief Paul Borrud does not take questions from media, and neither will its Australian public relations agency.
To put a request for comment to Facebook, you must contact its head office in the US — and even then, it is rare that the company will respond to press enquiries. It does not provide the name of a press spokesperson on its page, or even on its press releases. This lack of openness and accountability — for a company that holds a huge amount of data on individuals — is troubling.
It's also certainly against Australian standards. In general, and to a reasonable limit, Australians expect companies operating in Australia to be accountable and to answer reasonable questions from journalists — and almost every company and government body has no problem with doing so, especially on non-controversial issues. The fact that Facebook often won't respond even on the smallest issues is troubling.
- It's not a good archive for the Australian story. Facebook is not a publicly listed company — it's a private company. This means that almost all details of its finances are confidential and, with its lack of engagement with journalists, this means that there is almost no accountability on its actions.
At the moment it is one of the primary repositories for information about Australia's modern history, especially when it comes to the history of individuals. When historians look back in 20 years and want to do research on an individual and their place in the milieu of Australian history, they will look particularly to Facebook — who that person was friends with, what photos of them existed, what events they attended, what they liked and disliked, even their personal communications with others.
And yet, Facebook is a completely closed platform. If Facebook ever went bankrupt or had a serious technical problem, it is possible that much of that personal data would be lost or rendered inaccurate. If Australians are to start putting intensive details of their personal lives online, it needs to be in an open standard that they can control themselves and migrate to other platforms at will, rather than in a closed website run by a private company that is totally unaccountable.
Let me say one final thing: it is really hard to delete your data and account from Facebook. I encountered many problems yesterday when trying to do so.
I encountered errors when I tried to delete my photos from Facebook. I had to spend several hours trawling through all the sections of my account to find all the areas where my data was stored and working out how to "un-friend" my contacts.
When I had finally managed to delete all of my data, and then went to delete my account, it became clear that my account wasn't really being deleted — because when I logged back in, my account still existed, and Facebook was suggesting my old Facebook friends as people I should befriend again.
Facebook also reactivated my account several times — even though I didn't even visit the site — because I had used its online ID system, Facebook Connect, to log-in to other sites in the past, and the simple act of returning to those sites logged me back into Facebook and reactivated my account — even though I had deleted it.
Searching online, it appears that others have this same problem. The only way to completely get your account deleted from Facebook, it appears, is to delete all of your cookies and automatic log-in passwords on other sites, create new ones for some of them and then log out and log back in, and then not go anywhere near Facebook or its affiliates for 14 days.
Even then, you won't know if the account has actually been deleted — unless you try and log-in, which may reset the whole process!
In summary, Facebook doesn't invest in Australia, won't cooperate with our law enforcement authorities, censors online Australian political organisations at a whim and without advance notice, won't talk to journalists, and isn't a reliable long-term place for the Australian story to be hosted. Plus, it's almost impossible to delete your account.
Is this a company that Australia should be supporting? Not in my book.