Facebook, It's Time to Get Serious About Privacy

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Google yesterday blew out half a candle, celebrating the six-month anniversary of its Dashboard feature. The quiet celebration marked half a year spent trying to increase transparency and protect our privacy online, a lesson that fellow Web giant Facebook needs to learn.

The Dashboard lists everything you're giving to Google -- from Docs to Blogger to Calendar to YouTube. The project, which reportedly boasts 100,000 unique visitors per day (85 percent of whom are newbies) should offer a little comfort to those worried about spreading themselves too thin across the Internet. Dashboard is clean and easy to understand -- and Facebook needs to follow suit.

Though Facebook's privacy boo-boos are obviously unintentional, the site has developed a reputation for consistently broadcasting private information. The most recent disaster -- the exposing of private IM conversations -- was piggybacked on another: the release of private e-mail addresses. So the red-faced social networking site scrambles to change its policies at least a couple of times per year, adding layers of confusion for its more than 400 million users.

Privacy policies are crammed with legalese structured to protect the Web sites in question. They really aren't meant for you to read, but rather, blindly trust. To understand what we share on the Internet and with whom, you'd need hours, a studious eye, or perhaps a slick lawyer. And even if you can comprehend the policies, they're likely to change. It's enough to make the average Web user give up and ignorantly hand over their personal information to faceless entities.

Google has worked hard over the years to establish itself as the go-to guy for protection and transparency. But Google is not immune to blunder, nor is its name synonymous with confidentiality. Its Buzz project is a great example, and just one of many. Still, Google has put a lot of work into streamlining its policies and making them easy to understand for the average user. Facebook, on the other hand, changes policies so often it's hard to keep track of what, precisely, we're doing.

Google Dashboard's half-year anniversary presents an opportune moment for Facebook to clearly and comprehensively lay down the law. The mistakes will continue to pile up, the settings will morph into blobs of legal gibberish, and users will eventually get exhausted and perhaps even walk away. The Internet can be confusing enough -- let's try to nail something down.

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