Shifting Facebook privacy challenges

When you think about causes for concern when it comes to privacy online, Facebook frequently comes to mind. The world’s largest online social network has roughly 1.32 billion monthly active users with an average of 829 million active daily users in June 2014. It’s no wonder that privacy regulators are watching Facebook and other large providers carefully.

As David Meyer pointed out in his article on GigaOm titled “Facebook has only “pivoted” on one kind of privacy — in other ways, it’s becoming more dangerous“, Facebook has changed but its not necessarily positive:

I must give credit where it is due: As Slate’s Will Oremus wrote in a piece called “Facebook’s Privacy Pivot” a few days ago, the social network has greatly improved its handling of user privacy in recent months. In a sense.

Once a company that seemed to delight in undermining its users’ choice of privacy settings, these days the social network promotes “friends” rather than “public” as its default post setting, it has an “anonymous” version of its site login tool that limits what personal information logged-into services can see, and it’s just generally less… shifty. Hooray for that.

However, there’s privacy and there’s privacy – and the kind that Facebook has decided to no longer play games with is just one facet, albeit an important one. Broadly speaking, it’s the kind that relates to providing a reliable border between private and public spaces. As for privacy from Facebook itself, its advertising customers and surveillance-happy authorities, that’s an entirely different matter.

The challenge facing Facebook users now is that, although Facebook has found a way to better respect users’ sharing preferences, it has found a new revenue option that is based on leveraging the data it holds from its users. As I pointed out in my post titled “You No Longer Control Your Personal Information, Facebook Does” –

The possible ramifications of this are only starting to become clear. For one thing, personal information is already a valuable commodity, it may even become a sort of currency given its enormous value. Facebook is clearly positioning itself well for this new personal data economy. Secondly, as the world heads closer to a sort of Scrutinised Zone, Facebook’s role could include being a powerful non-governmental power bloc with a “citizenry” rivalling the world’s larger nations in terms of population and economic and social influence.

For now, users should consider the possible ramifications for their privacy. Facebook now has an effective mechanism which it will use to trade access to users’ personal information. Before Anonymous Login, this was more covert and involved matching ads to Facebook updates and profile data programmatically. Anonymous Login goes beyond ads. It is a far more overt sales channel for users’ personal information with control shifting to Facebook from the people that control should belong to – the users, us.

Facebook seems to have realised that forcing users to share more than they would prefer to is not good for business. It has also realised that it no longer needs to do that, it has a tremendous amount of personal information it can profitably exploit in other ways. In some respects, users’ privacy has been even more eroded and users may not appreciate these shifting Facebook privacy challenges for quite some time. Whether this will return to bite Facebook will depend on how transparent it is about what it does with users’ personal information.

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