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Facebook vs. LinkedIn: Which has the better privacy?

May 5, 2010 09:11 AM ET

Computerworld - Privacy advocates' criticism over recent moves by Facebook and Google Buzz begs the question: Is privacy possible in a social network? And, if so, which social-network service does it the best? To answer this question, this month I donned my privacy goggles and pored over the two social networks that my professional peers seem to use the most: Facebook and LinkedIn. I also asked all my Facebook friends and LinkedIn connections to tell me which they thought did privacy better. (I didn't look at Buzz because I admittedly don't know anyone using it.) What did I find out?

Privacy certification: A draw

One way to easily determine whether a Web site takes privacy seriously is to check for a privacy seal. In North America, the two worthwhile options are Truste and WebTrust, while the German-based EuroPriSe seal is a nascent arrival in Europe. With all of these trust marks, a Web site generally pays a fee to have its privacy practices independently certified.

As it turns out, both Facebook and LinkedIn have earned the Truste EU Safe Harbor seal. This means they both officially made Truste their arbiter for consumer disputes over European privacy compliance.

Indeed, both companies have self-certified to the EU-U.S. Safe Harbor agreement that the Department of Commerce administers and the Federal Trade Commission enforces. (You can find the Facebook certification here and the LinkedIn submission here.) By taking this step, both companies have committed themselves to adhering to seven European privacy principles. Moreover, the privacy officers putting their names on the Safe Harbor submissions have personally attested, under penalty of the federal False Statements Act, that their submission is truthful. I've clicked that False Statements button before, and I can tell you it causes you to make sure a strong privacy program is backing you up.

So far, the comparison on this point is a draw.

Privacy policy: A draw

One of the least viewed pages on a Web site, the privacy policy, is nonetheless the centerpiece of a company's privacy posture. When it comes to the policies of these two social networks, Facebook has an edge for its format and readability. The content of both policies get a B grade from me, however.

When you hit the Privacy link in the Facebook footer, you land on an attractively designed tutorial page. This "guide to privacy on Facebook" very clearly explains the concept of sharing profile information at three levels -- friends, friends of friends, and everyone -- and describes the rationale behind its recommended privacy settings. This section links to the full Facebook privacy policy, a 5,531-word thesis that mercifully reads at grade 11.7. Meanwhile, the LinkedIn privacy policy is a 6,250-word tome that reads at grade 14.8. This variance in length and readability makes sense, though, because the LinkedIn audience is generally older and more educated.

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