Facebook and the Nonconsensual Internet

I am in China this month, as a tourist. One place that I have visited as a tourist is the Internet. The Internet is much smaller in China than it is in America-much smaller than it was during the Beijing Olympics in 2008, when the world press was scandalized to find access to certain Web sites had been blocked even at the Olympic media center.

Back then, there were certain sites that didn’t load (the BBC) or that sometimes loaded and sometimes didn’t (Wikipedia), but the Great Firewall was still semi-plausibly deniable. Now that Google and China have declared war on each other , the existence of an Internet With Chinese Characteristics is out in the open. When I try to Google something, the Google toolbar that used to send me to American Google sends me to Chinese-language results from Google Hong Kong . Sometimes, a search goes ahead and redirects me to the Chinese search engine Baidu .

Mostly, this has been an embarrassing reminder of the extent to which I have outsourced the work of knowing things to a bunch of entities located outside my skull. What is that pop song that keeps playing everywhere here, rivaling “Scarborough Fair “? (Is there an E in “Fair”? No.) Without YouTube, I had no idea.

The song is “Don’t Matter” by Akon . I found that out after I finally got an Internet workaround going.

But now that I’ve opened a way out of the smaller, cozier Chinese Internet, I keep being tempted to close it down again. Mostly this is because of Facebook. Facebook is blocked in China, and until I spent two weeks away from Facebook, I hadn’t realized how much I disliked it. Every time I look at the site, it is throwing some prechecked box at me, encouraging me to improve my Facebook experience by accepting some greater broadcast of the personal information I’d originally input into a limited-access network.

After I uncheck the boxes, Facebook then offers me the chance to learn more about what it was doing-at which point it presents the same boxes, rechecked. Counting the multiple clicks it takes to confirm the opting out, I believe I have now told Facebook six or eight times that I don’t want to broadcast that I grew up in Aberdeen, Md.

It’s not that it’s sensitive information: Hey, Internet, I grew up in Aberdeen, Md .! People can know that if they care. But suppose I don’t care about announcing that kind of information either way? Suppose I want to tell the Internet other things.

The new Facebook is so aggressively nonconsensual, it felt as if I hadn’t really crossed the portal into open cyberspace. Invisible harassment is invisible harassment. Maybe I can hire some Public Security staffers to come back to America with me to block Facebook there, too.