Why today is 'Quit Facebook Day'

The social network has more than 400 million members but not everyone is enamoured with sharing their life with the rest of the world.

Bangladeshi Muslim protesters shout slogans as they burn a Swedish flag during a protest against social networking website facebook for holding a competition on caricatures of Prophet Mohammed, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Friday, May 28, 2010. According to news reports, Swedish artist Lars Vilks has angered many Muslims by drawing highly blasphemous caricature of the Prophet. (AP Photo/Pavel Rahman) *** Local Caption ***  DEL149_Bangladesh_Protest.jpg
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If Facebook was a country, it would have the third largest population in the world. More than 400 million members make it the very definition of the "global village" that the worldwide web was practically invented for. But Facebook has been facing controversy. A worldwide backlash has followed revelations that members' personal data have been made public and available to advertisers without their consent.

Indeed, news of these breaches was met with outrage by Facebook members and many have abandoned the network. An online group has even declared today "Quit Facebook Day", with almost 25,000 users pledging to delete their accounts. And controversy has spread to Bangladesh where the site has been blocked because it displayed caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed and "obnoxious" images of the Muslim-majority country's leaders.

Pakistan earlier banned access to Facebook, the video website YouTube and 1,200 web pages over a row about "blasphemous" content. Facebook would be reopened once Bangladesh had permanently blocked the offending pages, the Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission said. Facebook's founder and chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, does not believe the website's users actually want online secrecy. "It isn't that they want secrecy. It's that they want control over what they share and what they don't," he says.

Last week, Facebook made changes to give users more control over whom they share information with. Walid Osman, a 33-year-old British-Arab who runs a Dubai-based business, believes there are several reasons why he and many like him have never been tempted to join. He said: "Apart from the privacy issue, the amount of time people spend on it these days is ridiculous, and if you're at work you'll get easily distracted trying to catch up on what your friends are up to."

Not having a Facebook account does not mean you cannot be involuntarily drawn into it. Posting private photos previously would have been unthinkable, but now, for reasons of vanity or status, it is encouraged. "I am always baffled by people who have absolutely no regard for others' privacy, and who think they can post any photos of you for all their friends to see," said Mr Osman. "You can be at a party or function and get your picture taken, and the next day it's on Facebook whether you like it or not."

Increasingly, blackmailers and bullies have found a platform for criminal activity in social networking sites. In February of last year, Sharjah Police arrested five members of a gang - who called themselves "Death Room" - for beating up schoolchildren, filming the assaults and threatening to post the videos on Facebook unless money was paid. In November, a 26-year-old Syrian businessman admitted to Dubai Misdemeanours Court that he uploaded photos of his Lebanese business partner on to Facebook and posted libellous comments.

Jouslin Khairallah, the founder and chief executive of Khairallah Advocates & Legal Consultants in Dubai, said: "Legally in this country, you're not allowed to take or use a photo of a person without their permission. The only time you can is when a company uses one of an employee and clearly states so. So a person can sue another for posting photos of them on Facebook, but it's a very difficult procedure because there is a lack of regulation on the internet and it's very difficult to prove these cases."

Companies have used social networking sites such as Twitter, MySpace and Facebook to profile employees, or potential employees, and track their activities. "Companies have the right to terminate an employee's contract if a violation takes place during working hours," said Ms Khairallah. "Outside of working hours, they also have the right to fire employees if they are seen to be defaming their company on a social networking site, or indeed anywhere else."

Dina Hijazi, 32-year-old Lebanese who lives in Abu Dhabi, has never been tempted to join Facebook, saying it is a superficial way of maintaining friendships. "My past is my past and I'd like to keep it there. I keep in contact with my real friends who have put an effort for many years to stay in touch. I'm not interested in being in contact with some people on Facebook for the novelty period of three months and then not even catching up when they live in the same city."

Samer Khoury, 37, a Palestinian who works for a construction company in Abu Dhabi, was a user briefly but decided to switch off two years ago when he found his privacy being compromised by "friends". "Like many people I know, who are still connected to Facebook, I don't like photos of myself being posted without my permission. People don't realise that this can have a negative impact on your work or relationships. So many people complain about this but don't do anything about it. The relatively small number of people who signed up for Quit Facebook Day proves this."

akhaled@thenational.ae * With additional reporting from Reuters