Privacy and online media: Are we fresh out of Fuchs to give?

The boom in social media has increased the importance of online media for advertisers, and has introduced a complex series of questions regarding the privacy of user information.  Particularly interesting to me in the readings was Fuch’s “The Political Economy of Privacy on Facebook” which applied a socialist reading of class-based exploitation to the dilemma of information privacy in the social media realm. For this post, I chose to take Fuch’s assessment and turn his analysis towards the privacy policy here on WordPress  (http://automattic.com/privacy/) to better understand the relationship of abstract Marxist political economy to my relationship with my class blog.

                Fuch’s deconstruction of Facebook’s business model through the lens of Marxism provides parallels with WordPress, and its parent organization, Automattic. Particularly striking was how Automattic’s business model essentially sends Facebook’s reliance on (or perhaps what Fuch’s would call ‘exploitation of’) content generated by its “prosumers,” or individuals who both produce and consume content, into overdrive. On Automattic’s “Work With Us” page (which in-and-of itself provides a telling preposition), it is illustrates that within the US alone, Facebook enjoys 141M unique monthly hits with 3,539 employees.  Conversely, WordPress experiences 121M unique monthly hits with only 124 employees. Every month WordPress generates roughly 25 times more unique traffic per-employee than does Facebook. 

This illustrates the significantly better return-on-investment organizations can enjoy through an increased reliance on “prosumers” and decreased reliance on traditional employees. And if you’re wondering if this model is successful, just look at CNN, where scores of traditional journalists were fired when the company launched its “iReport” system.  Marx could’ve rested his case on such a callous use of one division of the proletariat to exploit another.

                A further element of Automattic’s privacy policy that I found somewhat disturbing, is the language. Although the simple language provided by Automattic is much more accessible than the typical legalese boiler plate found at many websites, it is also breathtakingly porous.  In particular, promises to protect user privacy are made “unless we truly need it,” “except to…develop our products,” or “unless required [for] ongoing operation” and leave tremendous gaps in privacy protection. Similar caveats allow for the disclosure of user information to “affiliated organizations” but never define who these organizations are. 

                Intriguingly, Automattic also concedes that were it to go under, user-information would be considered “one of the assets that is … acquired by a third party,” clearly illustrating that although the policy language is coy, the group knows well that user information has monetary value.  Furthermore, “ad-network” cookies, hosted on, but not created by Automattic sites, aren’t subject to the rules and conditions set out in the Privacy Policy at all, which leaves you totally exposed.

                Truthfully, though, I found it difficult to sympathize with Fuch’s claim that the system is exploitative.  Do users think that content is magically free? Although the system is ethically dubious, isn’t it the responsibility of the individual to educate themselves about the systems in which they participate? Do we even care enough to do so?

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8 thoughts on “Privacy and online media: Are we fresh out of Fuchs to give?

  1. lutingji says:

    It is not only WordPress but a lot of social media platforms have dubious privacy policies. I think the reason may be that those companies believe they need to gather users’ data, which is an intrusion to users’ privacy, thus they cannot gain users’ trust anyway. To them, it’s way of survival.

    At the end of your post, you asked two interesting questions that whether it is individual’ s responsibility to educate themselves about the systems they participate in and if they will care enough to do so. I believe most of us have not read the privacy policies of the social network that we partipate in. The users still lack awareness of importance of privacy issues. Although even they care, what can they do to protect their information? It seems to me that we do not have privacy options in most of the socia media platforms. If we join a social
    network, our information is determined to be utilized by the social network companies. If we want to protect our privacy, the most efficient way right now is to drop out from the network. I do not think most people would be willing to do so. From my perspective, privacy issues demand more responsibilities for the government to implement measures to protect privacy and for
    watchdogs to surveil those companies.

  2. jcrinkley says:

    When I read the privacy policy at Google I noticed a lot of word play similar to what you found with WordPress. While it is not veiled in legal jargon, there does seem to be a lot of manipulation of certain verbs that, when read carefully, reveal some of what they are doing with all of our content, which is still a bit mysterious. I also found it really interesting to read how CNN has gotten in on the game of cashing in on users. I actually wrote a paper on iReport last semester, but I had no idea that they fired actual employees in favor of digital workers who would do the job for free. It’s amazing that an international news organization has found a way to capitalize on a work force that is essentially the largest news team in the world. However, in CNN’s case I feel like the “exploited” workers actually gain a lot more than those being used by Facebook or Twitter. At least if I contribute to CNN I get to see my story produced and even broadcast or published. With social media I’m just a source of information waiting to be monetized.

  3. Moises Reyes says:

    Jonathan, you bring up some really fantastic points about how analogous WordPress is to Facebook in the context of Fuchs’ argument in his article. I find it extremely fascinating how you brought up that “Automattic’s business model essentially sends Facebook’s reliance on (or perhaps what Fuch’s would call ‘exploitation of’) content generated by its “prosumers,” or individuals who both produce and consume content, into overdrive.” You’re totally right. It takes a lot more work to write our blog posts for class, or for a would-be Anthony Bourdain to maintain a professional food/travel blog on here, then it is for us to update our statuses on Facebook.

    I was also shocked to learn about how Automattic’s business model is one of relying significantly more on “prosumers” than on actual employees. I can’t believe only 124 people work for WordPress and that it generates 25 times more traffic per employee than Facebook! That seriously shocks me, and I can completely see how this operation can be a goldmine the likes of which Fuchs would find to be the epitome of capitalist exploitation.

    I can’t say I entirely agree with your last paragraph, though. I don’t think all users are ignorant enough to believe that the content on social networking sites is free. However, the reality of needing advertising revenue to maintain a successful social media platform in today’s online landscape doesn’t translate into the need to violate users’ privacy in order to commodify it to third parties. There’s nothing inherently wrong about displaying ads on a website. There is something inherently wrong, though, about using behavioral tracking at today’s exorbitant levels without adequate transparency. And sure, it’s easy to say we as users have the responsibility about the systems in which we participate. But do you really wade through the endless monoliths of text making up the privacy policies of each website or service you use? Of course you don’t, and neither do most people. And these websites and services know that!

  4. xiluommc says:

    It is an interesting finding that even readable privacy policy can lead to misinterpretation and confusion. I used to think that policy maker may not mean to misled the users, and the occurrence of ambiguous words are due to the neglect.However, after going through your blog, I’d rather believe that WordPress INTEND to employ this porous privacy policy to take advantage of its users. The words like “expect”, “unless”,“ insofar as is necessary” are just so obvious. To a great extent, this so-called privacy policy weaken the protection of user’s privacy. Speaking of the social media, I get a feeling that they track me wherever I have a footprint. For example, we can always find the little Facebook icon on the page when we are browsing news website or shopping online. it is ubiquitous, isn’t ?Once logging in a new website with Tweet or Facebook account, they are able to trace you across all the websites you visits.Although I personally accept the fact that cooperating with third-parties, especially the social-networking sites like Facebook, is a commonly-seen marketing strategy for website which heavily rely on information generated by its users, I feel panic if this type of cooperation disclose my personal information to others or use my information in bad way. At last, I agree with you that it is the “responsibility of the individual to educate themselves about the systems in which they participate” because effective online privacy regulation is scarce.

  5. davidinmedia says:

    Hey Jonathan, I agreed with you entirely until the bitter end, so to speak. As has been shown in every single domain, self-regulation does not work. Only a strong government can regulate. I come from a European perspective. It is not he citizen’s responsibility to read every single legal document. Firstly, the citizen is not even trained to do so. Secondly, he doesn’t have the time! No–these companies, like all companies (see “the corporation”), are exploiting a totally unregulated marketplace and it is shameful. Yes, sure, they are free to make money, but not at the expense of the consumer. The consumer must be told, just like when he or she buys a car, what the cost is, and let him or her decide whether to pay. In this case, the customer is all too often entirely unaware what data is being collected and to what end. It is a disgracel, and it has to be stopped and the only way is through very tight regulation. . .

  6. You and I have talked about cultural approaches and Fuchs before, so I was mega excited to see what you had to say about it. And I think I agree with you for the most part, especially that spot at the end. Someone, somewhere, has to pay for the servers, the employees and coders, the electricity, etc. Yes, we produce the desired content that keeps the site going, but in reality the platform itself costs money to run.

    It’s the different, ultimately, in ideology vs. pragmatism.

  7. “Every month WordPress generates roughly 25 times more unique traffic per-employee than does Facebook.” Woo, those WP folks are clever!

    This post is rather light on connectivity to the Cho et al. article and the Kovacs video.

    Some interesting things about the WordPress empire not mentioned: (1) the legions of unpaid WP developers who create free themes and free plug-ins; (2) the ability to forgo all the intrusiveness of Automattic by simply paying for Web hosting and downloading the free WordPress software, installing it in your host, and opting out of the free WordPress.com system.

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