Communication (2011)


The BigBrotherAward 2011 in the “Communication” category goes to Facebook Deutschland GmbH for systematically poking its nose into people and their relationships, behind the friendly facade of an ostensibly free service. Facebook stores the collected data in the US – access by secret services enabled, deletion disabled. Via its “friend finder” and “mobile app”, Facebook also grabs hold of email addresses and phone numbers from its users’ address books. The “Like” button on external websites, even if it is not clicked, betrays all page visitors to Facebook. With Facebook, a kind of “gated community” is sprawling across the net in which people are monitored every step of the way. It is governed by the whims of a corporation that is earning billions with systematic privacy violations.
Rena Tangens am Redner.innenpult der BigBrotherAwards 2021.
Rena Tangens, Digitalcourage

The BigBrotherAward  in the “Communication” Category goes to Facebook Deutschland GmbH a “gated community”.

Do you know what gated communities are? They are fenced, secured housing estates – access for residents only. Until recently, you would only find them in places like the US, South Africa, or Brazil, but now they have sprung up in Germany as well. High walls, blinds, guarded entrances – and inside: houses, gardens, pools, playgrounds, parties and nice neighbours. The people who live here work hard, so they appreciate not having to manage every domestic issue themselves; they are sociable people who just want to have a good time. So what are you waiting for – join them!

Sure, the entrance is guarded by security. And there is sophisticated monitoring all over the place: CCTV with face recognition, infrared motion detectors, GPS and RFID scanners. This, they say, is not so much for the residents’ safety, but for the sake of convenience and a better service in general. The houses on the estate are “smart”, they always “know” when people are in a room and they regulate light and heating accordingly.

The area has its own communication system, free to use. Who still needs e mail? Oh, by the way, the messages are electronically scanned and analysed. Not just traffic data – who writes to whom when – but the message contents as well. The operators periodically compute a “happiness index” from the messages, so they know when the people are happy and they can optimise their services to provide a truly modern community experience.

Meeting friends is easy, because everyone is so close. And there are so many parties going on – you would probably never hear about these events if you were not a resident. It almost feels like a “club vacation”. Services are constantly being improved: Shops in the vicinity anticipate your every wish; even when you’re on a journey outside the community, they can follow you and gather information about your interests.

In your early days as a resident, you felt a bit uneasy about all those fences and the constant surveillance – but hey, all your friends are here too, so who cares.

Previously, you were allowed to put curtains in your windows. But the renovation service has been making more unannounced visits recently – great, isn’t it, how they keep renovating everything round here; but unfortunately, you often find the odd curtain or door missing after they’ve gone. And getting these back from the administration is quite complicated.

But that’s not really a big thing – after all, you didn’t move in here to hide yourself away. “See and be seen” is the motto.

The opportunity to live here is an offer that can hardly be refused: the houses are rent-free! Wow! You did wonder for a moment how the operators finance the whole thing – but, whatever.

Then there were newspaper reports about contacts between the operating company and the intelligence agencies. But surely those are just conspiracy theories. There were other reports about the operators’ financial and political backgrounds: American hedge funds, tax haven aficionados, followers of the right-wing Tea Party … But that cannot be – so many progressive, politically active people are here; they would not stay around if all that was true.

You think this whole story is quite absurd? – We think so, too!

Only, this scenario is largely real – not on a housing estate, but on the Internet. Which leads us to our BigBrotherAward winner:


Facebook – the nice, “social” network – would make Orwell’s “Big Brother” go pale with envy. It is growing into a “gated community” of global proportions. A closed society whose rules are made by a company. A “data octopus” with insatiable appetite – and people happily enter the embrace of its tentacles, and feed it.

The fact is: Facebook collects all data it can get. Not just name, address, profile image, phone and mobile number, photos, texts, status updates, location, messages to friends, visited websites and on and on and on …

Facebook can claim to have its users’ consent, because this is all laid down in the company’s terms. But how many people actually read the terms and privacy policy before setting up a Facebook account? The text is more than 50,000 characters long (making it longer than the US constitution), and quite full of complex legal and technical jargon. But this quantity should not be taken as an indication that privacy would be important to Facebook. It is in fact a classic case of hiding unpleasant facts in the sheer volume of text.

Facebook keeps changing its privacy policy without notification. As a result, privacy protections have continually diminished since 2005. On Facebook, private information is shared by default – if you want to protect your information or restrict access to certain people, it will take you a lot of effort to find all the places where a box needs to be checked or an option disabled. If users do not invest that time, their online presence turns into an open book.

But even if users do go to the lengths of changing the defaults and set everything to private – they might have excluded their teachers, parents or human resources managers, but they can never exclude the host: Facebook sees everything.

The changes in Facebook’s default settings between 2005 and 2010 have been visualised very clearly by programmer Matt McKeon. His diagram1 uses the symbol of a flower in which each petal represents some kind of Facebook content (name, profile image, gender, friends, networks, wall posts, photos, “Like” button clicks). White means the information is “private”, blue “public”. The further a blue petal extends from the centre, the more people can see that particular content. Fascinating how the flower’s colour changes to blue over time … Bit by bit, the users’ private details are publicised, without any intervention on their part, just because Facebook wants it that way.

Also, new features keep cropping up: with the “Friend Finder”, users are enticed to import their e mail contacts into Facebook. The company uses these addresses when non-registered people are “invited”. And those who use the Friend Finder via Facebook’s iPhone App are not informed that Facebook leeches the iPhone’s full contact data: names, phone numbers, postal addresses, associated photos, birthdays, even personal annotations. These doors open wide both ways: with “Instant Personalization”, websites linked to Facebook can access personal data in Facebook profiles. And the automated text analysis to compute a Facebook Happiness Index really exists. And there is the “Places” function, with which users can tell their friends – and Facebook – where they are. Any questions left?

The operators of Facebook keep pushing the boundaries, and they don’t give a damn about laws or their users’ expectations or what’s customary on the Internet. Only massive protest from the users can lead to small changes. But the tactic clearly is: three steps forward, and when met with stress, half a step back.

“Gated communities” are distinguished by the fact that the state has practically no influence on the rules that govern inside. Facebook is happy to ignore European data protection regulations and German laws. Ilse Aigner, German minister for consumer protection, unfortunately had no better idea than to cancel her own Facebook account as publicly as possible – in effect, a capitulation. Surely a minister should exercise her governmental role and act in the interests of the consumer: First, a quasi-monopoly needs to be regulated, and the regulations must be enforced; second, we need research on decentralised alternatives to foster competition; and third, we need to develop new business models for social networks that don’t depend on the marketing of personal data.

The German consumer association (Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband) sued Facebook in November 2010 over its terms and privacy policy, as these and the “Friend Finder” violate consumer and data protection laws. The data protection commissioners of the states of Schleswig-Holstein and Hamburg took up the issue as well. A tiny result was reached: changes to the Friend Finder were announced. There we have it, the half-step back.

One important issue is overshadowed by all these privacy details – the question who the people behind Facebook actually are. Who profits from accumulating all this data? There is Marc Zuckerberg, of course, he is well-known. But two other people on the Facebook board deserve closer attention: Peter Thiel and Jim Breyer, who have both bought themselves into Facebook with venture capital.

Peter Thiel is a hedge funds manager and made a fortune by founding the Internet payment service PayPal, which he sold to eBay for one and half billion US dollars. Peter Thiel wasn’t just interested in personal profit at PayPal, his goal was also to create a global currency independent from state banks, and thus to circumvent tax collection. Peter Thiel is a radical conservative and a libertarian at the same time, he likes Ronald Reagan and tax havens, and he supports the Tea Party movement in the US. And he has close links to the right-wing Internet platform “The Vanguard”.

Jim Breyer, of the risk capital company “Accel Partners”, is not a nobody – he was chairman of the National Venture Capital Association in the US. His predecessor in that position was Gilman Louie, who moved on straight to the CIA and founded the company In-Q-Tel. It may be a weak link, but they clearly know each other. The company name, by the way, was coined from “In-Tel” as in “intelligence”, and “Q” alludes to the genius inventor in the James Bond movies. According to their own website2, In Q Tel is a venture capital company that works for the CIA, and its express purpose is to harvest technological developments of interest to the secret services.

Facebook is clearly interesting to secret services. What more could agents wish for than to have people deliver their personal details, every movement, private messages and all their personal, professional and political contacts, for free, straight to a server in the United States?

And the link gets closer: Facebook’s third large investor is a company called Greylock Partners. Greylock’s Advisory Partner Howard Cox has maintained top contacts in the Pentagon for decades, and – surprise – he is on the In-Q-Tel board.

All that goes far beyond hypothetical concerns like “Oh, the data is stored in the US – the CIA might get to see it”.

This gated community with its nice “club vacation” feel should make us seriously worried. Because Facebook is doing whatever it can to become indispensable. It aims to replace personal websites, e mail, mailing lists and chat rooms. In 2010 it introduced “Facebook credits”, its own currency. Facebook asserts copyright over the contents that its users supply, and it censors unfavourable links.

The brightest stroke of genius for a long time, however, is the “Like” button on third-party websites. Facebook users can endorse web pages by clicking it. That way, Facebook even learns what people get up to “outside”, and what their interests are. A complete psychological and social profile is gathered – even if the “Like” button is never clicked! If, for example, a Facebook user looks at the website (Bild is Germany’s most popular tabloid newspaper), Facebook will plant two persistent cookies onto their computers in passing. After this, Facebook can always re identify that user. Web surfers that have not registered with Facebook receive a cookie as well, enabling Facebook to recognise them not by name, but by IP address.

Facebook aims to be no less than the first port of call on the net for as many people as possible, and through that it wants to monopolise communication, control it, and impose its rules on it.

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, shares our conviction that social networks that accumulate their users’ data and establish data monopolies shielded from the outside net rank among the greatest threats to a free Internet. We would like to add that they also threaten the rule of law.

Why do so many people entrust so much of their personal data to Facebook? Years ago in a chat, company founder Marc Zuckerberg put it in a nutshell: “they trust me – dumb fucks.”

By the way, the BigBrotherAwards website will not be garnished with a Facebook “Like Button”. Because with “friends” like that, you don’t need enemies.

Congratulations on the BigBrotherAward, Facebook.


Updates to this awardee

Unfortunately, we do not have the capacity to translate our updates into English.

Rena Tangens am Redner.innenpult der BigBrotherAwards 2021.
Rena Tangens, Digitalcourage

1 The Evolution of Privacy on Facebook. Changes in default profile settings over time. An interactive visualisation. (Web-Archive-Link)

2 "In-Q-Tel identifies, adapts, and delivers innovative technology solutions to support the missions of the Central Intelligence Agency and the broader U.S. intelligence community."


Sources / recommended reading:

Several of these sources are in German. English explanations, and in some cases alternative sources, that have been added by the translator are marked in italic text.

Sascha Adamek: Die facebook-Falle – Wie das soziale Netzwerk unser Leben verkauft. Heyne-Verlag, 2011 (Web-Archive-Link)
“The Facebook trap – how the social network is selling our lives.” The author is a journalist and film maker for German public television.

Jakob Steinschaden: Phänomen Facebook: Wie eine Webseite unser Leben auf den Kopf stellt. Ueberreuter, 2010. [Content no longer available]
“The Facebook phenomenon: how a website is turning our lives upside down.” The author is an Austrian newspaper journalist.

NDR Medienmagazin ZAPP: Facebook: Umgang mit Daten [Video not available]
A 6 minute item on how Facebook takes control of its users’ data, broadcast in a programme on media matters on German public TV.

WDR Monitor: Im Visier von Facebook – Das Ende der Privatheit [Video not available]
An 8:30 segment of a journalistic feature programme on German public TV, pointing out privacy concerns regarding Facebook’s “Friend Finder”, other websites sharing data with Facebook, and more.

Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband (vzbv): Surfer haben Rechte
“Surfers have rights” – a public information website by Germany’s Consumer Association.

vzbv reicht Klage gegen Facebook ein – „Freundefinder“, AGB und Datenschutz verstoßen gegen Verbraucherrecht [Content no longer available]
A press release by Germany’s Consumer Association about the legal action it took against Facebook’s “Friend Finder” and its terms and privay policy, claiming that these all contravene German consumer protection law. Web-Erfinder warnt vor Facebooks Datenmonopol. By Konrad Lischka (Web-Archive-Link)
German news article – an English equivalent appeared on, “Tim Berners-Lee: Facebook could fragment web” by Josh Halliday Experten-Analyse – Hier provoziert Facebook Datenschutzärger. By Konrad Lischka. (Web-Archive-Link), Germany’s largest news site, with an “expert analysis” of legal conflicts between (German) data protection law and Facebook’s terms or practices. With friends like these … By Tom Hodgkinson (Web-Archive-Link)

Telepolis: Der etwas andere Philanthrop. By Peter Mühlbauer (Web-Archive-Link)
“The somewhat different philanthropist” – an article about Peter Thiel on the occasion of his offer of sponsorship to students intending to leave college and pursue a business plan. It quotes an English article about the same project: “Turn on, Start Up, Drop Out – Hyper-libertarian Facebook billionaire Peter Thiel's appalling plan to pay students to quit college” by Jacob Weisberg:

The Register: Facebook founder called trusting users dumb f*cks. By Andrew Orlowski. (Web-Archive-Link) Hinter jedem Freund steckt eine Werbung. By Luca di Blasi (Web-Archive-Link)
“Behind every friend, there is an ad.” This article reflects on Facebook’s revenue strategy – how the site compensates for the lower impact that online advertising has on a social network, compared e.g. to a search engine. It highlights efforts by Facebook to turn users into bearers of advertising messages e.g. through the “Like Button” and other forms of product endorsement within Facebook and on cooperating sites – personalising not just the advertised product but the advertiser.

Linktipps: Wie lösche ich einen Facebook-Account? Christiane Schulzki-Haddouti im kooptech-Blog. [Content no longer available]
“Link tips: how do I delete a Facebook account?” A blog article by a “veteran” German tech journalist on removing Facebook accounts. [Content no longer available] shows how Facebook tries to dissuade you from doing that, and [Content no longer available] describes how difficult it is to fully delete your data. Also featured: legally questionable e mail censorship by Facebook (Wired article at, and the “privacy flower” in the next source.

The Evolution of Privacy on Facebook. Eine interaktive Darstellung zur Entwicklung des Datenschutzes auf Facebook.

Web 2.0 suicidemachine – click here to sign out forever. [Content no longer available]

Openbook. Openbook lets you search public Facebook updates using Facebook's own search service. [Content no longer available]

c't 1/11. Datenschutz-Fallrückzieher – Ein Netizen entdeckt den Wunsch nach Privatsphäre. By Marcus Lindemann, Jan Schneider. (Web-Archive-Link)
“Data protection ‘U-turn’ – A netizen discovers his desire for privacy.” In this article in Germany’s best-known IT magazine, two journalists conducted an experiment with a net-savvy volunteer, who is employed at an Internet company and happy to share private information online. The journalists profiled the volunteer, using publicly accessible information, and put the results into a draft article. The volunteer eventually withdrew his consent to publish the article, despite the fact that he or his wife had published most of the online sources themselves.

Gaydar – Facebook friendship exposes sexual orientation. By Carter Jernigan and Behram F.T. Mistree. First Monday, Volume 14, Number 10, 5 October 2009 (Web-Archive-Link)

To Join or Not to Join: The Illusion of Privacy in Social Networks with Mixed Public and Private User Profiles. By Elena Zheleva and Lise Getoor. [Content no longer available]

Facebook's Privacy Trainwreck: Exposure, Invasion, and Social Convergence. By danah boyd, 2008. (PDF)

About BigBrotherAwards

In a compelling, entertaining and accessible format, we present these negative awards to companies, organisations, and politicians. The BigBrotherAwards highlight privacy and data protection offenders in business and politics, or as the French paper Le Monde once put it, they are the “Oscars for data leeches”.

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