A week ago, Facebook’s Zuckerberg said we don’t need privacy:

Many posts were written about how he’s wrong. He is wrong. I’m sure he knows it. However, framing the debate around the “trend of openness” draws attention away from the fact that FB is bursting blood vessels trying to think of ways to monetize all that information we keep adding, and is thinking less and less about the morality of this option versus that one.

The first volley arrived in the form of updated privacy settings, which gave you the option of sticking to the custom, stronger privacy settings you may have set before, or quickly clicking “accept” and suddenly have most of your content shown to practically anyone. EFF and others have commented quite thoroughly on the less-than-savory methods that were employed.

The new settings weren’t intended to be clear. They were intended to make you thoughtlessly open up everything to everyone by clicking “ok”. It wouldn’t have taken a genius to improve them, and the idea that a company with actual UI people on staff did this accidentally is laughable.

Next, the following things on your Facebook profile became totally public:

  • Your full name
  • Your profile picture
  • Your gender
  • Your current city
  • Networks you belong to
  • Pages you are a fan of
  • Your friends list

After some uproar, you can now hide your friends list again, but it’s in a very odd place.

Much of this is also public on Twitter. Why then the anger over Facebook? Because when you signed up to Facebook, under the premise of privacy, you used your real name, the one Google can find you with. You can’t change your name anymore, if Facebook thinks you’re faking it. Twitter was public from the start, so most people treated it accordingly from the start.

Facebook is considering Foursquare-like check-ins next, which would provide them with the final piece of the puzzle that is you: Your exact location, as well as the physical businesses you frequent. It’s unlikely to be in Facebook’s best financial interest to keep this information private either.

Why not just leave Facebook? There’s the catch.

Facebook has you by the social balls. You signed up all your friends so you could create a private social bubble for the people you know and care about. Ballooning friends lists nonwithstanding, it always felt somewhat intimate. Except now it’s less and less so.

You can quit Facebook, but there’s a clear social cost to pay. You’ll probably lose touch again with most of those friends from long ago and far away. You’ll miss certain events, certain parties, because people will assume everyone got the Facebook invite. You’ll be a hermit of conscience, ousted by an inner circle you yourself helped build.

That’s a swift kick in the lizard brain. And it’s the bait-and-switch that did it.

In old fairytales about magic, if you tell the wicked witch your real name, she’ll use it to trap you forever. You gave your name to Facebook, and now they own you. Which makes it even worse that there is something fundamentally wrong with Facebook’s moral compass. They back off from their creepiest updates only when the angry feedback becomes loud enough. Eventually, not even angry feedback may matter.

The sad part is that online social networks hold a lot of promise for ways in which people could come together and keep in touch meaingfully. Thanks in part to them, our final years could be quite different from those of recent older generations, many of whom currently wilt away from loneliness in nursing homes. The online social network could be a stand-in for the communities people used to have when they lived all their lives in close-knit villages. For these networks to have this kind of meaning, however, there need to be ways to limit exposure.

What else, then?

By giving us everything for free, social networks are practically forced into moral prostitution. If we want to keep the world out and just hang with our friends on their servers all day, social networks need more wholesome ways of making money. Like billing us.

One option would be WOW-like paid VIP accounts for which the network guarantees total privacy. Stop paying the monthly fee, and you can’t update certain information until you pay again. Would this guarantee privacy only for the rich? Depends on the price, I suppose.

Real privacy is technically difficult (some might say close to impossible), but the rewards in terms of real communication could be significant. Imagine the easy freedom of such an online space: Say whatever you want. Unlike on the rest of the web, you’re among friends here.