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Facebook Privacy: Buyer Beware by Steve Cunningham

Last year I wrote about my students' use of Facebook as a primary means of communication amongst themselves and with me. I signed up several years ago, and students immediately began communicating with me via Facebook e-mail and postings on my Wall, often to the exclusion of the normal university e-mail system. However, my Facebook experience lately has changed, such that I am considering whether it may be time to abandon my Facebook account altogether. What are the changes that may ultimately drive me and others out of Facebook's Internet ecosystem?

Facebook has become an increasingly opt-out system, where the user must specifically disallow certain information sharing, rather than an opt-in system where the default is to share it all. Much of the personally identifiable information one may post for the benefit of friends is considered by Facebook to be fair game for marketers working for third-party websites and companies. In short, Facebook users' ability to control how much of their personal information is made public, and with whom it is shared, is rapidly diminishing.

In late April, four senators, including Al Frankin and Chuck Schumer, sent a joint letter to Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, expressing their concern over sharing members' data with third parties and with the network's byzantine opt-out procedures. Then in early May, some fifteen consumer privacy groups filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission in an effort to stop Facebook from making personal information public.

The phenomenon of overshare

We all know about the endemic "overshare" in which young people regularly engage on all manner of social networks. This is not about that unfortunate occurrence, examples of which include the embarrassing cell phone snap taken during an inebriated Spring Break or the politically incorrect joke posted on a Wall by a "friend", all while either blissfully unaware or purposefully ignoring the fact that the Internet is forever.

No, this is different. This is not about Facebook users' being irresponsible. This is about Facebook being irresponsible with users' demographic information, marital status, education, and employment information, preferences and interests, and what products, services, and causes users "like".

Facebook's policies have shifted away from privacy, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation >. From an April 28th commentary on EFF's Deeplinks blog, Kurt Opsahl creates a timeline showing how these policies have gradually changed over the past four or five years. These changes are breathtaking; in 2006 Facebook promised that their privacy settings "...limit the information displayed in your profile to your school, your specified local area, and other reasonable community limitations that we tell you about." By December of 2009, the company claimed that some information "...such as your name, profile photo, list of friends and pages you are a fan of, gender, geographic region, and networks you belong to are considered publicly available to everyone, including Facebook-enhanced applications..."

Even the formerly innocuous Likes and Interests section of a member's Profile has been transformed into "Connections" that are shared publicly. For example, it is no longer possible to list an Interest in classic cars on one's Profile without that entry being connected to a dedicated classic car page which publicly displays the names of all other classic car aficionados. Should such a page not already exist, Facebook creates one and populates it with "fans". What is not clear is the user benefit of this "feature". While it is difficult to imagine searching through the names of thousands of classic car fans, one can easily imagine a Facebook advertiser or marketer happily spelunking through such a list.

The possibility of unfortunate events

Now some will not care if marketers know they like old cars. However, if their interests include controversial topics like abortion, immigration or radical politics, Facebook's policies say it's fine and dandy to share, by default, those controversial (and perhaps offensive) interests with other websites, perhaps with negative repercussions for their employment or social life. Individuals have reported finding their preferences on partner sites like Yelp, Pandora or Microsoft's Docs, without ever having posted them on those sites. The only way to avoid being linked to these pages and sites is to delete altogether Likes and Interests from the Facebook Profile page.

Facebook does provide opt-out functionality within the Privacy Settings of the Accounts pages, but the opt-out process is not a simple one. According to a May 12th article in the New York Times "Price of Facebook Privacy? Start Clicking", opting-out of most disclosures requires clicking over 50 buttons and setting some 170 options. How many of us have the time or patience to navigate through that?

Facebook needs to return to its former role as caretaker of its users' personal information rather than acting the voracious middleman, racking up dollars by peddling targeted advertising utilizing personal information. The company needs to make the process of opting-out simple, friendly, and quick. A screen or three asking the user direct questions about what should and should not be shared would be a good place to start. Better still would be reverting the network to a true opt-in system, where nothing personal is shared unless the user specifically requests that it be shared. Unfortunately Facebook already considers themselves an opt-in website. According to the company, users opt-in when they open an account. If they're not comfortable sharing certain information, then they shouldn't share it.