Monday, May 17, 2010

The Facebook privacy problem.

I was going to throw in my two cents on what I thought of the whole Facebook privacy problem. But there has been so much discussion already about the issues online by people much more knowledable, credible and eloquent than me.

So I’ve decided to link to them instead.

But first, take a look for yourself to see what is publicly available from Facebook:

This is fun, scary, sad… and real.

Arguably, some of these people expose their statuses to the public because they are seeking attention.

But judging by the personal nature of some of the posts, can you honestly believe that every one of them explicitly chose to have everything there be so public?

What’s going on? Perhaps a rapidly changing privacy policy and a disconnect between privacy expectations and reality has something to do with it.

Matt McKeon created an informative infographic on how the default privacy settings on Facebook have changed over the years, exposing more and more personal information to the public.

And the New York Times printed a graphic on the complexity of the privacy settings necessary to lock down your account.

But I think the most nuanced and considered analysis of the privacy issues associated with social networks like Facebook and Google Buzz was argued by social ethnographer Danah Boyd at SXSW 2010 this year in Austin.

Wired and The Guardian also have weighed in on the issue, as well security expert Joey Tyson.

So what can you do?

Security heavyweight Bruce Schneier warned that users of Facebook should stop thinking of themselves as FB’s customers, but rather as their product to be sold to advertisers.

As such, maybe people’s perceptions and expectations might change as well as their online behaviours. Maybe.

So what can you do about it?

Deleting your account is one option and some are considering social networking harakiri.

Some of the Technorati have already done so, including podcaster Leo Laporte, enterpreneur Jason Calacanis and blogger Peter Rojas.

“How do I delete my Facebook account” currently is one of Google’s top trending searches and “commit Facebook suicide” groups ironically are popping up within Facebook.

Switching networks is another option.

A new open-source social networking project called Diaspora* has secured over $173,000 in donations on Kickstarter from people looking for an alternative.

That people are willing to donate real money to a rag-tag team of four university students based simply on a lofty promise and vapourware speaks much to their dissatisfaction with current options.

Of course, MySpace, Orkut and Friendster all are still around, and loads of newer sites are popping up around the web. However, none have the giant user base that FB currently enjoys and that may not be changing for a while.

Internet blogger Nancy Baym blogged about why “despite herself, [she] is not leaving Facebook, yet”, and many people feel the same way.

For many, myself included, this means that the only real option is locking down the security settings in FB, scaling back participation and hoping the privacy policy doesn’t change yet again. Which is a shame because FB does offer something real — being able to connect to people you might not normally maintain contact with without having to really work at it.

But ultimately, as Danah Boyd writes, the issue with Facebook is not about "the future of privacy and publicity. It’s a battle over choice and informed consent.”


knwd said...

"For many, myself included, this means that the only real option is locking down the security settings in FB, scaling back participation and hoping the privacy policy doesn’t change yet again."

I agree completely. Obviously, there are some things that you don't mind sharing publicly-- this blog would be prime evidence of that.

It's not the public-ness of what I say that bothers me as much as it is the sense that my personal data is being exploited for purely commercial purposes.

For example, I don't mind telling people that I enjoy using Pandora or Pidgin (which I had previously "liked" on Facebook) but I feel objectified and exploited when that information is being used "demographicize" me as just a potential target for some other product. And it becomes especially creepy when that info is transmitted along with my name, my age, my location, and a list of my friends.

ER said...

It will be a real shame if and when users start to leave FB. There's lots to dislike but it's an easy, free and friendly way to keep in touch with friends and acquaintances - especially those overseas. Use the privacy controls people; recognise FB's online and remember there's always someone watching. Don't add something for public consumption if you wouldn't be prepared to tape it to the wall outside your local tube station. Don't share silly amounts of data. But don't just let them scare you away.