Facebook privacy and empty platitudes

The latest Facebook status of my friend made me chuckle: "WARNING! As of tomorrow, Facebook will creep into your bathroom when you're in the shower and tweak your boobs. To change this option, go to Settings > Personal Settings > Bathroom Settings > Boob Tweakage Settings and uncheck the Shenanigans box. Facebook kept this one quiet. Please copy and paste on your status."

It illustrates so much about how frustrated people are growing with Facebook, and its cavalier attitude to privacy.

Yes, I am on Facebook. Yes, I am aware that being on Facebook and whining about Facebook sounds hypocritical. I have to admit, I am addicted to that social network as some people are to junk food. Facebook is how I find out about what my friends are up to, it has my social calendar, and it's where some friends share photos and it's where I get my Lexulous (*cough* Scrabble *cough*) fix. It is particularly handy for me to keep up-to-date with my friends on the other side of the world.

But Facebook has been dogged by privacy issues. If a friend is tagged in a photo by someone I don't know, I can then see - if I wanted to - the entire photo album of this third person. What's more, lately I have noticed that I see status updates about people I don't even know, just because one of my friends has happened to comment on it. So Facebook encourages people to become voyeurs, and blurs the boundaries of privacy.

My latest bugbear is that Facebook has started asking users to link to education, work, location, employer and likes pages, with connections made public by default. If you baulk at going along with the new policy, you will find the details are removed from your profile. As a result, Facebook stripped out all the information in my profile, because I refused to let the social network add links. This is on the same day the social network promised its simplified privacy settings.

Last week's xkcd comic, titled Infrastructures sums this up nicely.

Facebook, along with MySpace and Digg, was recently caught sending data to advertising companies that could be used to find consumers' names and other personal details. The data shared included names, user IDs, and other information to enable ad companies such as the Google-owned DoubleClick to identify distinct user profiles. The Wall Street Journal broke the story on Friday, after which Facebook and MySpace moved to make changes to its code.

Facebook appears to have gone farther than the other sites when it comes to sharing data. When Facebook's users clicked on ads appearing on a profile page, the site would provide data such as the username behind the click.

To put it plainly, if you are on your profile page, and you click on an ad, you are telling that advertiser who you are, Harvard Business School professor Ben Edelman told the Journal.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg has since admitted Facebook has made privacy mistake and promised it would mend its ways. But as Computerworld's Sharon Machlis says: "I'd be a lot less skeptical if we hadn't heard this before -- numerous times before. Facebook Beacon, anyone? 'People need to be able to explicitly choose what they share,' Zuckerberg said more than two years ago after a flood of criticism over Beacon, an advertising system that collected and shared user's activities on some outside websites. Yet "instant personalisation" was implemented not long ago that, oh, shared information about us from outside websites unless we specifically blocked the app."

Users are fed up. In fact, Monday is Quit Facebook Day, but I doubt it will have much of an impact. At least, not until Diaspora, or some other alternative, is launched.

There is a lot that Facebook needs to do to clean up its act. Just switching to an opt-in, rather than opt-out, model would be a start. An opt-out model forces Facebook users to turn these new features off instead of letting them decide whether or not they want to use the new feature in the first place.

But there are degrees of culpability here. Some Facebook users have no idea that Facebook is not private. The golden rule should be that you should only post what you would want appearing on the public web. If you don’t want a status update or a photo to live forever in some Google index, then don't put it on Facebook. When it comes to the web, think long and hard before you hand over control of your social life to proprietary companies.


Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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