Faculty Blog, Friedman, Privacy

On the Moral Duty to Leave Facebook

In an essay published last November, the philosopher S. Matthew Liao asks: do we have a moral duty to leave Facebook? His answer: not yet. In light of Facebook’s destructive effect on information privacy, I’m not sure the answer to his question shouldn’t be an unequivocal “yes.”

Considering the duties one owes to others, Liao examines Facebook’s role in undermining democratic values—the way the platform, for example, allows the spread of racist propaganda and false news. He notes that it is no answer to say that this concern does not apply to most users, for being on Facebook serves to encourage one’s friends to do the same, and allows Facebook to use you, and them, as data points—or, more accurately, to reduce you and them to data points. And, while you might not see your use of Facebook as undermining democratic values, continued use denies the potential for the kind of collective action – namely, leaving Facebook – that might slow the platform’s more deleterious effects on democracy.

In light of these concerns, Liao believes that, for the sake of others, users who intentionally spread hate and fake news through Facebook should leave the platform. Of course, these users are the least likely to abandon Facebook, because it provides them a means by which they can amplify their message and expand their audience.

Liao does not believe other users – the majority, presumably – should leave Facebook—at least until the platform crosses a moral “red line” and enters the realm of “outright wickedness.” For example, Liao suggests that Facebook would have crossed such a line if it had “intentionally sold the data of its users to Cambridge Analytica with the full knowledge that company would use the data subversively to influence a democratic election,” but “the evidence indicates that Facebook did not intend for those things to occur on its platform.”

But what if the “red lines” Liao has in mind are moving targets? And, even if they are fixed – and in the distance – couldn’t Facebook be a source of social harm without crossing one of those lines?

Consider the way in which Facebook undermines privacy. The platform appears to be cost-free, because it thrives not on subscription fees but the voluntary disclosure by users of their personal information, which Facebook then monetizes by selling targeted advertising. No matter how a user adjusts his or her privacy settings, Facebook itself has access to all a user cares to share—this sharing of personal data is what fuels Facebook’s business model.

To understand why this model undermines privacy, it’s important to conceptualize privacy as a value, rather than a mere commodity, as Facebook (and other tech companies) see it. Unlike commodities, some goods have an intrinsic worth—they are beyond price. The human body is intrinsically valuable—which is one reason why body parts are not legally for sale. Clean air has intrinsic value—without it, we humans could not exist. Privacy is like these goods. Our ability to control personal information affects our ability to define ourselves (as opposed to being defined by others)—which is to say, one of the ways in which we are human.

It is true that privacy also has instrumental value—value that may be measured by its relation to other goods, like liberty and democracy. But that does not mean privacy is not at the same time an end unto itself, a particular feature of our humanity—an aspect of our lives without price, because we cannot reckon with it purely in financial terms.

A consequence of the sharing that Facebook encourages in its users is the devaluation of privacy. Upon joining Facebook, you sacrifice a degree of control over information about yourself. Once information about you comes within Facebook’s possession, can no more recover control over it than you could re-grow a lost limb. Further, as with other goods that have intrinsic value, the devaluation of one person’s individual privacy will tend to devalue the privacy of others. Facebook users literally give away control over their personal information, which makes it difficult for others to argue that their privacy is worth more than nothing.

In this light, users need not wait for Facebook to sell user information to a political consulting machine, or to serve as a weapon for the promotion of hate. The threat Facebook poses to the value of privacy – even to the privacy of those people who do not use Facebook – arises from its business model. Which means that Facebook crossed a line the moment it became available to everyone, everywhere, all the time.

Lawrence Friedman teaches constitutional law at New England Law | Boston and is the author, most recently, of the second edition of Modern Constitutional Law.