Today I had the pleasure of attending the Safer Internet conference. Among educators, IT specialists and NGO activists galore present was also Gabriela Cseh, Facebook’s Head of Public Policy for Central and Eastern Europe, with a talk on how Facebook can be useful in classrooms.
I find the idea dangerous. The main argument used by Mrs Cseh was that Facebook makes it “easy” to do things together in a class, while also keeping it “safe” and “privacy aware”. I am not sure about the “easy” part, but “safe” and “privacy aware” this simply cannot be.
As there was time for questions at the end of the talk I took the liberty of asking some of my own.
Private interests in public schools¶
First of all, using a single, centralised tool throughout the education system seems dangerous, rather than safe. It exposes the whole education system to policy changes and decisions made by a single privately-owned entity that is in no way influenced by the local education board. In other words, it exposes public education to private interests.
You said that Facebook is “not top-down control tool”. Of course, from the perspective of the teacher, that holds true. However, this tool is top-down controlled by Facebook itself.
Facebook’s answer: “it’s not mandatory”.
This is not enough, not even close. Vendor lock-in is a real problem, causing real damage; once a school invests (time, money, knowledge) into building their curriculum around a given technology (here: Facebook’s offering) and once students and teachers all have their accounts there, the school would be very strongly disinclined from changing, even if some policy decisions on Facebook’s part are not in line with school policy.
The only way around it would be using open protocols so that other companies can offer similar, compatible service, and hence schools would have a real possibility to change a provider should there be a policy conflict. This, of course, makes no business sense for Facebook.
Censorship in classrooms¶
One of such policy clashes is immediately visible. Facebook has blocked New Yorker’s profile for a benign cartoon that had female breasts visible. How, in that context, can Facebook be used in biology class? And what if Facebook’s board of directors decides at some point that teaching, say, evolution is not exactly compatible with Facebook’s corporate policy?
The only answer that was given was that “Facebook decided nudity is not allowed on the platform”. Full stop. Want to use the platform? Play by the rules.
Not only do we have an example of a policy clash, we already get a taste of how it would get resolved. Bottom line: it should not be Facebook (or any private entity, for that matter!) setting the rules by which children are educated.
Mrs Cseh spoke also about “deep privacy tools”, and how they are geared towards protecting privacy of users (including students) from other people on the Internet and on Facebook itself. Problem is, they in no way protect privacy of citizens from privacy-hostile organisations like the NSA. This is a serious question in light of information about the PRISM programme.
This question was met with an emphatic retort that “Facebook has never been a part of PRISM”. Which does not change much – had it been a part of it, it could not admit it.
One question I haven’t asked is: how are the “deep privacy tools” protecting citizens (including schoolchildren, as is being proposed) from being profiled and exposed to having a full dossier by advertisers Facebook cooperates with? We already know that Facebook profile data can influence credit ratings, for example. Is making children’s school history a part of such dossier is really such a great idea?..
Not only Facebook¶
Of course, these problems are not Facebook-specific. Using Google Docs or Microsoft SkyDrive brings up many if not all of these questions. Schools (indeed, public institutions in general) should not use for their data closed, proprietary and incompatible services they do not control.