Social networking software

Can You Really Trust Facebook?

Privacy watch
Responding to yet another user uproar, Facebook recently made efforts to simplify its privacy controls and introduce some other welcome changes. They're good steps to take--but considering that Facebook had to be forced to respect users' basic wishes regarding their own information, it suggests a serious disconnect in how the company and its users view privacy.

In January, CEO Mark Zuckerberg had said that his company was updating its systems to "reflect what the current social norms are." So when Facebook announced in April that it would automatically enroll users into new features such as Instant Personalization--which handed users' publicly available Facebook info to selected Websites that users visited--the implication was that users' wishes, not the company's bottom line, prompted the move from a largely private system shared only with approved friends to a largely public system that freely gave data to search engines, marketing companies, and anyone else who wanted it.

Facebook Users Revolt

The shift suggests that, according to Facebook, the current social norm is to share everything with everyone. But many users clearly disagree, judging from the spike in the number of people searching in Google for "delete Facebook account."

In May, reacting to complaints, Facebook drastically simplified its labyrinthine privacy controls. Instead of having to sift through as many as 50 settings and 170 options (according to a count by the New York Times), users see a chart outlining which info is shared with everyone, with friends of friends, or with friends only. Just as important, Zuckerberg says that the company will no longer arbitrarily change those settings when new controls or features are added.

Good moves. But it's beyond me as to why any business would have to be forced to acknowledge that reversing a user's privacy control changes to make previously personal information public is a bad idea.

If you're willing to stick with Facebook to see if the clue-bat whacking takes hold this time, try a tool that can hedge your bets. Originally made to assist with the previous sorry maze of privacy controls, a bookmarklet from ReclaimPrivacy.org can scan your settings and report whether you might be sharing more than you'd like. Its creator, Web developer Matt Pizzimenti, says his organization will be keeping the tool updated to scan the newly simplified settings as well as any future controls, in part because he believes that the current defaults are still too open for comfort.

Wondering what the fuss is about? Data-mining firms are vacuuming up this now-public information for marketing and advertising databases. One company, Marketo.com, offers to "monitor what prospects say on social sites" for use with sales leads.

For some people, that may very well be today's social norm. Me, I still think there's such a thing as privacy.

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