Inside 1to1:Privacy

Time to say goodbye? Choosing to log off--permanently--in a social networking world

March 31, 2010

By Jennifer L. Saunders


Social networking. Whether we're tweeting, blogging or answering that now-famous question, "what's on your mind?" it's clear that we enjoy our time online. In fact, the world's largest social networking site, Facebook, recently announced it has an estimated 400 million users. It would seem that this movement to interact socially via computer is only gaining momentum.

Or is it? In the past few months, the advent of Internet "suicide" sites indicates there may be a countermovement in the making: the search by some users for simple ways to end the Web-centered portion of their lives. A recent article in USA TODAY pointed out that the "desire to unplug has made an unexpected success out of Web sites such as Web 2.0 Suicide Machine and Seppukoo...free sites that automate and turbocharge the otherwise laborious manual process of scrapping your online self."

When launching Seppukoo in November, the Italy-based Les Liens Invisibles issued an announcement stating, "our privacy, our profiles, our identities, our relationships, they are all...entirely exploited for a sole purpose: to be sold as a product." They wrote that by "hacking and parasiting Facebook, the most popular social networking Web site, Seppukoo.com deactivates one's user account."

WORM, the force behind the similar Web 2.0 SuicideMachine, stated that its goal was to expedite the process of removing profile information and "to make users of social networks aware that they should always be in control of their own data."

These online services, however, are no more. On February 18, a release posted on WORM's Web site alleged Facebook had threatened "further legal action if WORM doesn't stop targeting the Facebook platform via the SuicideMachine...According to Facebook and its lawyer, the Web 2.0 SuicideMachine has violated Facebook's Terms of Service and with that WORM has forfeited its right to keep using the platform."

Like the social networking profiles of those who used the sites, both Seppukoo and the Web 2.0 SuicideMachine have been deactivated, following a backlash from social networking platforms alleging violations of--among other things--user privacy.

In The Times, columnist David Aaronovitch wrote of learning about the recently defunct suicide sites as he questioned the implications of deleting one's online past-life.

"As a journalist I was horrified by the implications of online suiciding," he wrote. "In the first place it means the erasure of documentary history. And second it raises the possibility of routine doctoring of material on the Internet to render it more palatable to the offended."

Aaronovitch suggested the second implication would be the worse of the two as "some people, many perhaps, might seek to undermine any informational authority on the Web by flooding it with false information, thus obliquely protecting their own identities. As an occasional target of such misinformation, sometimes playfully (as when an unknown person amended my Wikipedia entry to make me Serbian by birth), and sometimes maliciously, I know it can play merry hell with everyone's sense of reality."

With online suicide, he suggested, "it seemed to me that there was a threat much worse than that to privacy, and that was of privacy-induced attempts to bend or erase the truth that is essential to the value of the Internet. Lack of privacy may be uncomfortable. Lack of truth is fatal."

However, news reports continue to surface about those who are abandoning their online lives.

In a recent Globe and Mail report, for example, a New York resident describes leaving the location-based social networking site Foursquare after a notation on the site about her visit to a local shop garnered some unwelcome attention.

"When she got home, she was greeted with two messages," the report states. "One was from a man she knew on Twitter but had never met. He wrote that he was near the chocolate shop himself, but that she shouldn't worry because he wouldn't actually 'come stalk her.' The other message was from a former coworker, who said if someone wanted to assassinate her, it would be very easy."

For those who have decided to end their virtual lives, how easy is it to say goodbye?

Not easy enough, many contend, including David Fewer, director of the Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy & Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC), which filed a complaint that spurred Canada's Office of the Privacy Commissioner (OPC) investigation into Facebook in 2009.

Fewer told Inside 1to1: Privacy that Facebook "has greatly improved the transparency of its dealings with personal information" since the OPC issued its findings. However, he said, the process of deleting Facebook profiles has been "referred to as the 'Hotel California' problem--you can check in any time you like but you can never leave."

Personal information protection law specifies that people have the right to control how their information is used, he explained, noting, "When that information is no longer being used, it must be deleted by the organization that collected it in the first place."

Facebook Public Policy Manager Simon Axten told Inside 1to1: Privacy that Facebook has "long provided people with the ability to either deactivate or delete their Facebook account--and to do so quickly and easily," but revised its privacy policy in December to further clarify the difference between the two options.

According to the policy, if Facebook users choose to deactivate their accounts, other users will no longer be able to see their profiles, but all information will be saved in case the users later wish to reactivate their accounts. When users choose to delete an account, however, "it is permanently deleted."

If Facebook allows users to do essentially the same thing as the Web suicide sites, why would the site have a problem with such services? Axten said the issue is user privacy. While users may willingly give their social networking login information to sites like Seppukoo or the SuicideMachine, those sites' subsequent use of that information on their behalf violates Facebook's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, he said, "because it gives them access not only to data belonging to the person who provided the login information, but also to data belonging to that person's friends."

For its part, CIPPIC continues to have questions about Facebook's information removal options. According to CIPPIC Staff Lawyer Tamir Israel, the problem is compounded by lack of clarity, "and given the difficulties involved with finding the delete option, escaping from Facebook was difficult before and has become even more so."

CIPPIC has filed a Statement of Concern seeking clarification from Facebook on the deactivation-deletion options and other issues.

"We're still looking for Facebook to improve the visibility of the account deletion option and take down its barriers to people reclaiming their privacy," Fewer said.

Whether or not users delete their information should be a matter of personal choice, many agree, and the issue of how to manage such data online has prompted Invention Arts Chief Scientist and Co-Founder Marc Davis and his colleagues to delve into exploring a framework of user data banking and exchange.

In reality, Davis told Inside 1to1: Privacy, the issue of deletion goes beyond online suicide platforms or social networking sites as the reality is that even with deletion options, much of the information that is shared online has been downloaded to hard drives and other locations and is there to stay.

With everything from academic transcripts and call logs to credit card transactions and photographs shared broadly or on a limited basis via the Internet, "Deleting one's information from the Web isn't really a practical solution," he said.

Instead, he contends, a move to a user-centric model would better protect citizens' privacy by giving them control over the use, transfer, storage and deletion of their data while also providing a way to help stimulate economic growth.

In the meantime, when it comes to the question of whether the interest in limiting or ending online life is merely a flash in the pan or a harbinger of things to come, the answer may only come with time. However, as the ways in which the information we disclose through social networking can be used continue to change, some may continue to decide to go offline for good.

And for them, Fewer said, the end should be swift and painless.

"It should be a simple process that is easy to find--choose the option, confirm your choice and you are done."