Why I won't use Facebook to leave comments on news sites

Facebook is private, surely?

Trinity Mirror's decision to require commenters across its newspaper websites to log-in via Facebook has been robustly defended by digital publishing director David Higgerson.

Instinctively I'm not a fan of the move. But seeing Higgerson's response, and that of other online experts who have defended the move, I am left wondering whether I am being a bit of a luddite.

The argument seems to go that readers of free websites are getting something for nothing, so they shouldn't take umbrage at providing their Facebook log-in as the price of interacting with the content. It makes moderation a lot easier, deters trolls and other abusive commenters and has commercial benefits because you find out more about the readers and can tailor content and advertising to them accordingly.

According to Social Baker, 62 per cent of the UK’s online population are on Facebook – which suggests that the Trinity move might exclude 38 per cent of potential commentors.

Perhaps if people feel very strongly about commenting on a story they will set up a Facebook account in order to do so.

But that said, I know plenty of people who aren’t on Facebook and  never will be because of concerns such as privacy and security. Or because they just don't like it.

There is another constituency of people who may have joined Facebook but never use it.

I tried out the new MEN commenting system at the Birmingham Mail. I was the first person to leave a comment on the current top piece in the opinion section here.

The log-in process was very simple, but I felt uncomfortable about giving the Birmingham Mail access to my Facebook account. Weirdly the word 'suck' is banned by the computer moderator (I wanted to say 'MPs should suck it up and take a pay freeze like everyone else in the public sector). But otherwise the system appears to work very well.

Nonetheless (other than in this instance) I won't be using Facebook to log-in to a news website again because:

  1. Facebook for me is a private and not a public thing. I  purely use it to interact with friends, not the world at large.
  2. I use Twitter for any public social networking (I think most journalists operate on a similar basis).
  3. I’m uncomfortable about giving access to my Facebook account willy nilly and suspicious (even though this may be unfounded) that what I have read and what I have commented on will start appearing on my timeline.
  4. I don’t want my Facebook profile picture to be the public face I present to the world.

I'd be more than happy to use Twitter as a log-in tool (but I guess that wouldn't help Trinity keep out the trolls), or provide them with my email (ditto). So perhaps there is no easy answer to this, but my instinct is that the Facebook move is a far from ideal solution.

I have no problem with handing over all sorts of private info to a news organisation in exchange for the hard work their journalists do in providing me with news. This could include my email address, telephone number, home address and work address. But giving them access to my Facebook account just feels, to me, too intrusive.

This article first appeared on Press Gazette

I felt uncomfortable about giving the Birmingham Mail access to my Facebook account. Photograph: Getty Images

Dominic Ponsford is editor of Press Gazette

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation