Douglas Rushkoff's announcement earlier this week that he was quitting Facebook happened to coincide with a major New York Times story about a new French proposal to levy a tax on online data collection. The connection? Both raise an issue that's key to the future of the Internet: Who owns the data we users leave online? Us, or the companies that harvest it in return for all those free services they provide?
So far, the answer is obvious. But both Rushkoff and Nicolas Colin, a former entrepreneur who's co-author of the French tax proposal, are arguing in their separate ways that that's not how it ought to be.
Rushkoff is the rare thinker who is refreshingly clear-headed at the same time that he's assertive almost to the point of combativeness. His latest book, Present Shock, due out March 21 from Current, argues that we've moved beyond futurism to something he calls "presentism": Caught in the rushing river of realtime, we struggle to stay afloat. In a post earlier this week, he announced that in his own attempt to do so, he was quitting Facebook
. . . because my participation on the site is simply too inconsistent with the values I espouse in my work. In my upcoming book . . . I argue—as—I always have—for engaging with technology as conscious human beings, and dispensing with technologies that take that agency away.
Facebook is just such a technology. It does things on our behalf when we're not even there. It actively misrepresents us to our friends, and—worse—misrepresents those who have befriended us to still others. To enable this dysfunctional situation—I call it “digiphrenia”—would be at the very least hypocritical. But to participate on Facebook as an author, in a way specifically intended to draw out the "likes" and resulting vulnerability of others, is untenable.
Facebook has a long history of questionable behavior toward its users, but the policy Rushkoff describes is particularly egregious. As outlined last month in a post on Forbes.com, the company has decided not only to use your likes in its new Graph Search feature but to recycle old likes and tie them to new, "related posts" that turn up in in your friends' newsfeeds. These related posts go up without your knowledge, permission, or control—as evidenced by a Minneapolis software developer who reported on his own blog, "I’m only familiar with this issue because a friend asked if I liked 'penis shaped waffles.'"
Seriously? Penis-shaped waffles?