Facebook: Understanding privacy on the social networking site

Posted on Wednesday, May 5th 2010 at 11:01 a.m.

Social networking site Facebook has had a problematic history of balancing its users’ expectations of privacy with its desire to generate revenue via targeted advertising.  The site’s ability to sell targeted advertising, as well as its mulitple revenue-generation streams through such avenues as virtual games, has enabled it to arrive at ridiculous private market valuations  .

The issue of privacy on the internet is certainly part of a larger debate .  Thanks to search engine indexing, people are beginning to understand that information on the internet is no longer segmented.  In other words, something you communicate on one internet site will no longer remain solely on that site.

Facebook has some rather unique challenges in the privacy arena.  For many of its users, Facebook is the only internet site that they make postings to; and often those postings communicate intimate details about one’s life.  Many Facebook users are under the impression that when they post anything to Facebook, it is the equivalent of saying something to a roomful of one’s friends, rather than getting on a megaphone and broadcasting to the world.

Complicating matters has been Facebook’s shifting positions on privacy.  Over time, Facebook’s default settings for users have changed from “no sharing unless you request it” to “sharing everything unless you request it to stop.”  As a result, different Facebook users may have different expectations of privacy depending on when they signed up to the site.  Laid out over time, it appears that Facebook has developed a view that is users are goldmines of marketing potential that need to be mined like a West Virginia mountaintop.

Facebook’s most recent changes are the creation of Instant Personalization and Connections. Both measures seek to leverage one’s social connections for advertising purposes - if your friend likes Bud Lite, maybe you will too.  One unintended consequence of both of these initiatives, however, is that users may not want all of their Facebook friends knowing what movie they most recently watched on Netflix, or that they approve of marijuana decriminalization.  As well, Facebook has made both programs opt-out, meaning that everyone is automatically enrolled and needs to go through extra steps to remove themselves.  If you want to opt out of either of these services, the EFF has published guides on how to opt out of Instant Personalization and  Connections.

I know I am the LGOD alarmist when it comes to issues of rights and privacy, but I can’t say the shifting sands of privacy on Facebook give me a lot of warm fuzzies about Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg.  My hope is that at some point Facebook will understand that, in the drive to make as much money as possible from social-based advertising, it should pay serious attention to the needs of its users.

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