Note to Facebook on Privacy: How About Opt-In, Not Opt Out?

Staring down a storm of criticism around privacy issues on Facebook, CEO Mark Zuckerberg promised today to give users an easy way to opt out of third-party services. Probably, though, most users would be a lot happier if Facebook came up with a simple approach to opting into those services, rather than out of them.

Public outcries over unwanted visibility of users’ Facebook information has reached the halls of Congress, spurring U.S. Senator Charles Schumer to release an open letter last month asking the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to produce privacy guidelines for all social networking sites – including Twitter and MySpace, for example, along with Facebook – as well as to keep a close eye on compliance.

In an effort to fend off the controversy, Zuckerberg wrote an op-ed column published in Monday’s Washington Post promising to make changes “as soon as possible” that will simplify Facebook’s privacy controls for users.

“Simply put, many of you thought our controls were too complex. Our intention was to give you lots of granular control; but that may not have been what many of you wanted. We just missed the mark,” Zuckerberg admitted.

“We have heard the feedback. There needs to be a simpler way to control your information. In the coming weeks, we will add privacy controls that are much simpler to use. We will also give you an easy way to turn off all third-party services.”

Zuckerberg has at least one thing right. Facebook’s existing controls are complicated indeed. In fact, Facebook currently has something like 170 different privacy options and 50 privacy settings.

Yet I think that giving people an easy way of turning off all third-party services probably isn’t going to do it for legions of angry Facebook users. Although some Facebook members assuredly want to share their personal data outside of Facebook, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if there are many more who don’t want their information shared with any third-party services at all.

In an informal poll conducted by Internet security firm Sophos, 60 percent of 1,588 Facebook users said either that they’d “possibly” leave Facebook because of privacy concerns, or that they were “highly likely” to do so, while 16 percent said they’d already canceled their Facebook accounts.

Users are also venting their ire in countless blogs and forums around the Web. “I find it very disheartening that a positive opportunity for social networking has become a deplorable occasion to gain control over personal information,” wrote a user named Ariana on the ConsumerAffairs.com Web site.

To give Facebook members more real control over how their personal data is used, Facebook ought to be simplifying its privacy tools in the direction of “opting in”– where users need to actively volunteer to share information – instead of the opposite “opt out” approach. In essence, Facebook should be giving users an easy way of turning on third-party services – if these are desired – rather than an easy way of turning them off.

Disenchantment with “opt-out” mechanisms has been widespread, anyhow. Back in the summer of 2008, some members of Congress argued vehemently that cable providers should get affirmative opt-in consent from consumers to use NebuAd’s “deep packet inspection service” for intercepting customers’ communications and determining what types of ads might be most useful to display.

More recently, Google has gotten drubbed over forcing users to opt out of its new Buzz service if they want to avoid letting Gmail users view their personal profile information.

Sure, Facebook would lose some ad dollars by taking an opt-in approach. But it could be the best way for Facebook to keep more of its existing members, as well as to stop the federal government from taking potentially highly intrusive regulatory action around the entire social networking industry.

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