Publicity becomes the norm on Facebook, not privacy

Mark Zuckerberg.jpgFacebook’s founder (at least the most prominent founder) recently commented that if Facebook were to launch today, the emphasis would be on publicity and not on privacy which was the focus when Facebook actually launched and until recently. The question Mashable’s Pete Cashmore asks touches on the key issue here:

Is this more about reflecting social norms or changing them to help Facebook compete with Twitter?

Facebook’s spin on its recently revamped privacy controls is that it is giving users more control over their personal information by simplifying its privacy controls. This is true, to a large degree, but it sidesteps the problematic way in which Facebook effectively conned its users into choosing far more public settings over their previously private defaults.

Facebook has declared that privacy online is over and the norm is publicity. It is a pretty bold statement for the young founder to make, particularly given that Facebook didn’t simply recognise an overwhelming tendency for Facebook users to expose their profiles to the public Web but rather began a process of forcing more and more publicity. This process began some time ago when it opened status updates to the public Web and search engines like Google. The most recent privacy controls “update” is the latest and most blatant forced change to date.

Marshall Kirkpatrick wrote about Zuckerberg’s recent statements which he made during an interview with TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington in a post titled “Facebook’s Zuckerberg Says The Age of Privacy is Over“. He summed up the inconsistencies in Zuckerberg’s approach:

This is a radical change from the way that Zuckerberg pounded on the importance of user privacy for years. That your information would only be visible to the people you accept as friends was fundamental to the DNA of the social network that hundreds of millions of people have joined over these past few years. Privacy control, he told me less than 2 years ago, is “the vector around which Facebook operates.”

I don’t buy Zuckerberg’s argument that Facebook is now only reflecting the changes that society is undergoing. I think Facebook itself is a major agent of social change and by acting otherwise Zuckerberg is being arrogant and condescending.

Perhaps the new privacy controls will prove sufficient. Perhaps Facebook’s pushing our culture away from privacy will end up being a good thing. The way the company is going about it makes me very uncomfortable, though, and some of the changes are clearly bad. It is clearly bad to no longer allow people to keep the pages they subscribe to private on Facebook.

This major reversal, backed-up by superficial explanations, makes me wonder if Facebook’s changing philosophies about privacy are just convenient stories to tell while the company shifts its strategy to exert control over the future of the web.

It is worthwhile reading Kirkpatrick’s full post which you can find here.

Considering how Facebook is clearly manipulating its users into opening up their profiles more and more and, in the process, sacrificing their privacy online altogether, I was more than a little embarrassed when I found my post from almost a year ago proclaiming my renewed affection for Facebook due to new strides in transparency and protecting users’ rights.

It should come as a surprise that Facebook’s moves towards greater publicity at its users’ expense are apparently designed to counter Twitter’s growing threat, despite Facebook’s clear superiority in numbers and Twitter’s continued instability and unreliability. Its all about getting more of those valuable eyeballs to Facebook and exposing profiles to the public Web and the search engines that index it is one way to achieve that. By persuading users to accept new and more public “recommended” settings, Facebook sidesteps privacy concerns on the basis that users have consented to the changes and, in fact, made the changes themselves. This, of course, doesn’t take into account how informed that consent was?

I’d like to end off with another quote from Kirkpatrick from his excellent post but before I do, I’d like to point out that this isn’t just about Facebook pressing users to open up their Facebook profiles. The potential harm goes far beyond Facebook profiles. It affects a Facebook user’s presence elsewhere on the Web and compromises more restrictive privacy settings on other sites. How does this occur? Well, consider that your Facebook profile contains a fair amount of personal information which you previously kept private behind Facebook’s privacy controls. At the same time you may have had profiles on other sites, similarly restricted by privacy settings or less personal information disclosure on those other sites.

When your Facebook profile opens up to the public Web, it effectively negates your privacy on other sites to the extent 3rd parties can connect your newly public Facebook profile to your profiles on other sites. As I pointed out about a year ago, increased online publicity also potentially compromises offline privacy when particularly sensitive personal information is released online, collated and misused by identity thieves and fraudsters. There are very real consequences for Facebook’s change of direction which most users will be blissfully unaware of until they awake from their reverie to find themselves irrevocably exposed to the public Web in ways they never anticipated or wanted.

Kirkpatrick sums up another dimension to the problems this privacy/publicity shift introduce:

Facebook allows everyday people to share the minutiae of their daily lives with trusted friends and family, to easily distribute photos and videos – if you use it regularly you know how it has made a very real impact on families and social groups that used to communicate very infrequently. Accessible social networking technology changes communication between people in a way similar to if not as intensely as the introduction of the telephone and the printing press. It changes the fabric of peoples’ lives together. 350 million people signed up for Facebook under the belief their information could be shared just between trusted friends. Now the company says that’s old news, that people are changing. I don’t believe it.

I think Facebook is just saying that because that’s what it wants to be true.

Whether less privacy is good or bad is another matter, the change of the contract with users based on feigned concern for users’ desires is offensive and makes any further moves by Facebook suspect.

As useful as Facebook is, users need to understand that Facebook is making serious and irreversible inroads into their privacy. It is removing choice from the equation by relying on perceived social norms that favour publicity, arguably disguising an openly secret desire to counter Twitter’s threat to its model. Rather than reacting to these perceived social norms, Facebook is forcing a change in behaviour and artificially creating these norms. The problem is that this change is not consensual and certainly not informed. It is predicated by misdirection and misinformation. At this point the only thing users can do is proactively monitor their privacy settings and adjust them to grant themselves an acceptable degree of publicity while retaining some semblance of privacy.

One thing for sure is that this could well be the end of privacy on the Web and the beginning of a new era where the emphasis shifts to identity management on the social and public Web, rather than on privacy.

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