I shouldn’t have to submit my phone to a near-complete invasion of privacy in order to use Facebook’s messaging system.
Unfortunately, I might have to. On June 7, Facebook barred users from messaging on mobile browsers (like Chrome or Safari) to force people to download the Facebook Messenger app. Facebook is effectively holding users’ abilities to participate on social media hostage, and unfortunately, this is acceptable. The website is likely doing this to gain more information from their users’ mobile devices.
Right now, I have two choices if I want to see who messaged me.
Choice one: open Facebook in Google Chrome, see the red “1” indicating I have a message, tap the message, get redirected to a download page for Facebook Messenger, become frustrated, find a nearby place with Wi-Fi, open my laptop, and finally open my rec-league softball team’s group chat to learn that the game was cancelled (damn rain). Meanwhile, my phone is about to die because Facebook Messenger drains data and prevents the device from sleeping.
Choice two: download Facebook’s Messenger, subject myself to numerous privacy invasions, and struggle to ignore the annoying chat bubbles that cloud my screen whenever I get a message. The app is sort of reminiscent of the pre-firewall internet of 2002.
You essentially sign a contract every time you download an app, authorizing permissions or agreeing to terms of service (that no one actually reads). If you don’t like the contract, you can’t download the app. In most download situations, powerless users rarely question the hegemonic power of the developer.
When you download Facebook Messenger, you sign away. That is, your identity, contact list, location, SMS, call log, camera, microphone, Wi-Fi network, and call information. Your information is likely used for social engineering — Facebook’s mathematical way of choosing what content shows up on your news feed, who is at the top of your chat list, and who shows up under “People You May Know.” But your activity patterns are also very valuable to advertisers. My information, pooled with the information of anyone else who has ever downloaded Facebook Messenger, could be even more valuable. It’s unclear if user information is being sold at the moment, but it’s plausible and legal because users agreed to the product’s terms of service.
But Facebook is more than a product — it’s a social environment with more than 1.5 billion users. It’s become integral to human life and communication. In the past year, one Facebook user may have used the service to announce their engagement, confirm their safety after evacuating Fort McMurray, warn ETS commuters of that back-of-the-bus masturbator, and learn about Nunavut’s ongoing food crisis from other users living in it. Appreciating that you don’t have to pay $10 for a jug of milk might seem small, but it’s a significant part of what it might mean to live in social media.
It’s annoying that I have to download Facebook Messenger because the app hemorrhages battery power and functions like a popup. It’s even more annoying that if I want to talk to friends or set up meetings for work, I have to pay a ransom of personal information to a company that isn’t even based in my own country.
Users in the social environment need new protections against their corporate lords — we need some kind of limit on the power social media holds over its users. Those who passively agree to use agreements should start thinking about the right to our online and social activity.
People strived for freedom from the church during the Reformation, from aristocrats during the Enlightenment, and from employers during the Industrial Revolution. Perhaps we should begin to strive for freedom from the barons of social media.
And while you’re thinking about your shrinking internet freedom, fellow plebs, brace yourself for upcoming Facebook’s next annexation: on July 7, your synced photos will be deleted unless you download Facebook’s Moments app (a photo app competing with Instagram).