There’s been a fair bit of hubbub lately over Facebook and its privacy policies. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has documented what it terms
filed a complaint with the FTC over privacy issues, and New York Senator Charles Schumer likewise
urged the FTC to provide privacy guidelines for social networking sites that protect users’ personal information. In response, Facebook’s vice president of public policy, Elliot Schrage, took
a page in the New York Times to profusely apologize for not being clear enough about how awesome Facebook is.
I was a very occasional Facebook user. I rarely visited my Facebook wall and any items posted there were simply relayed from
my Twitter account. Like a lot of Facebook folk, I found the service to be a useful way to reconnect with old friends, schoolmates, and former colleagues. It was just as helpful for keeping in touch with local community groups. I rarely friended anyone who wasn’t a real friend or associate, I completely avoided the games and polls, and I was careful about the images and movies I shared. In short, a somewhat cautious and conservative Facebook user.
I went into Facebook understanding that social networking sites are designed for people to share the details of their lives. I also understand that many people are tempted to share too much about themselves on such sites without clearly understanding that the Internet is forever.
For instance, that Spring Break picture of you hanging out of your blouse after 17 margaritas—you know, the one your ex-boyfriend took and is now sharing with your name plastered all over it? The one that bears the caption “Sooooooooo wasted!!!!”? That picture may be less fetching to the parents of the third-graders you now teach. And is it really wise to let the entire world know that you’re going to leave an unoccupied-yet-full-of-treasure house empty for a month while you visit Australia?
But hey, you knew this going in, right? It’s a Social Freaking Network. If you didn’t want to share this kind of stuff, you wouldn’t have signed up. And that’s basically Facebook’s take. In answer to this question from one abycats, New York in Schrage’s New York Times piece:
Why not simply set everything up for opt-in rather than opt-out? Facebook seems to assume that users generally want all the details of their private lives made public.
Everything is opt-in on Facebook. Participating in the service is a choice. We want people to continue to choose Facebook every day. Adding information—uploading photos or posting status updates or “like” a Page—are also all opt-in. Please don’t share if you’re not comfortable.
And in a perfect world that would be great. Be a grown-up and take responsibility for your actions.
The problem is that Facebook wasn’t designed for Internet grown-ups. It’s designed for regular folks who aren’t terribly tech- or privacy savvy. Try this experiment:
Those of you who are Facebook users, take a look at your friends. How many of them would you consider fully conscious of how their information might be used to their detriment? How many would you trust capable of configuring Facebook’s increasingly complicated privacy settings so that the information they choose to share is shared only with a very select group of people?
If your answer is anything but “very few,” I admire the company you keep.
My particular problem with Facebook—and the reason I deactivated my account—is that rather than responding to people’s very real concerns about how the service shares its users’ personal information, Facebook has determined to attack it as nothing more than a PR problem.
Elliot, it’s not about PR or how we seem to misunderstand Facebook’s message. As those New York Times readers made very clear, people are upset that Facebook is playing fast and loose with users’ privacy. With each service “upgrade,” users have to play whack-a-mole with their privacy settings because Facebook has opened up yet another window to their world. And those privacy settings are now so convoluted that a veritable cottage industry has risen to inform people how to
close the holes you’ve opened—if they bother to close them at all. The truth is that most Facebook users don’t have a clue about how their privacy settings are configured nor do they think about the results of their inaction.
Which is why I’d like to see Facebook take more of a caretaker role. I think I know how to configure those many privacy settings but my mother—a new Facebook user—doesn’t. Rather than being hell-bent on making a buck by shoving targeted advertising at their users, how about taking a measure of responsibility for how the service treats privacy. For example, when Ben from Chicago writes in the New York Times:
I love Facebook, but I am increasingly frustrated by the convoluted nature of the privacy settings. It’s clearly within Facebook’s ability to make the privacy settings clear and easy to use—why hasn’t this been a focus?
Perhaps you could come up with something more genuine than:
Unfortunately, there are two opposing forces here—simplicity and granularity. By definition, if you make content sharing simpler, you lose granularity and vice versa. To date, we’ve been criticized for making things too complicated when we provide granular controls and for not providing enough control when we make things simple.
Elliot, allow me to add the additional criticism that this kind of insincere malarkey is insulting to your users. You’ve used a computer before, right? In that time have you ever run through a configuration process—a step-by-step procedure that asks you how you’d like to use the program? No? Let me help then.
When I sign up for a Facebook account I should see this:
“Would you like us to share the information you post on your wall with third-parties (including advertisers)?”
“No it is. Now let’s talk about the friends you specifically invite to view your wall and what they can do with your information.’
And off you go, asking some very direct questions and providing enough information so users understand the implications of their choices. Half-a-dozen questions should nicely deal with most people’s settings. At the end of the process point out that a click on the Advanced Settings tab will allow those who wish to granularly control their settings do so.
Of course it will likely impact your business. It may also help prevent people like me and my former Facebook friends from leaving in droves.
[Christopher Breen is a senior editor for Macworld and can be found on Twitter @BodyofBreen.]