Facebook strips users of even more privacy options

Facebook is becoming synonymous with forced publicity and a flagrant disregard for users’ control over their personal information. It is also changing the way that large providers like Facebook and Google will treat users’ personal information. It is almost trite that privacy as in secrecy is pretty much over for anyone who is active on the social Web. It sounds harsh and a little outrageous to make that statement (I’m not the first) but it is an uncomfortable truth. At the same time a new approach to privacy has emerged in the last couple years which could be the next best thing: privacy as in users’ control over their personal information.

In a world where real secrecy online doesn’t really exist, control over how much personal information to expose to who becomes really important. Meaningful control over your personal information is also referred to as “informational self-determination” and it is central to decent privacy policies. Facebook has made a number of changes to how it is handling users personal information and it has done so under the guise of giving users more control over their personal information. This is just insidious. What Facebook regards as more control over users’ personal information is really a series of changes to privacy setting defaults and controls that appear more user friendly but really detract from the level of control users enjoyed previously. The last round of privacy control changes, for example, changed privacy defaults to “Everyone” for a range of personal information categories. If users weren’t careful they would have exposed far more of their personal information to the public Web than they may have been comfortable with previously.

All of these changes are made under the auspices of Facebook’s privacy policy which is amended using a curiously deceptive practice of being more transparent about the changes. Facebook publishes the proposed changes to its terms, the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, and gives users an opportunity to comment. Here is how it works:

13. Amendments

  1. We can change this Statement if we provide you notice (by posting the change on the Facebook Site Governance Page) and an opportunity to comment To get notice of any future changes to this Statement, visit our Facebook Site Governance Page and become a fan.
  2. For changes to sections 7, 8, 9, and 11 (sections relating to payments, application developers, website operators, and advertisers), we will give you a minimum of three days notice. For all other changes we will give you a minimum of seven days notice. All such comments must be made on the Facebook Site Governance Page.
  3. If more than 7,000 users comment on the proposed change, we will also give you the opportunity to participate in a vote in which you will be provided alternatives. The vote shall be binding on us if more than 30% of all active registered users as of the date of the notice vote.
  4. We can make changes for legal or administrative reasons upon notice without opportunity to comment.

So users have an opportunity to comment on proposed changes but if the number of votes on the proposed changes don’t meet the “30% of all active registered users”, the vote won’t be binding. Bear in mind that there are 450 400 million users and while not all of those users are “active registered users”, 30% works out to a lot of votes! The current draft privacy policy and draft Statement of Rights and Responsibilities don’t seem to have nearly enough votes or comments to meaningfully influence the amendment process. This means that these proposed changes will likely be implemented and users can expect even more of their personal information to be exposed publicly based on Facebook’s determination that people are and should be more public.

Users will now find that much of their personal information is becoming publicly available, whether they like it or not. What does “publicly available” mean?

Publicly available information includes your name, profile picture, gender, current city, networks, friend list, and Pages. This information makes it easier for friends, family, and other people you know to connect with you.

Publicly available information is visible to people visiting your profile page, and Facebook-enhanced applications (like applications you use or websites you connect to using Facebook) may access this information. It does not allow people without Facebook accounts to contact you.

The latest changes also introduce a new way of handling your interests. According to the Facebook blog:

More Connected Profiles

Some of you added information about yourself, such as your likes and interests, favorite books, music and movies, when you first joined Facebook. But we've noticed that more than three times as many of you have connected to Facebook Pages, such as those for bands, non-profits, universities or anything else you care about, as a way to express yourself. So to make it even easier to display your affiliations, we've improved the profile.

Now, certain parts of your profile, including your current city, hometown, education and work, and likes and interests, will contain "connections." Instead of just boring text, these connections are actually Pages, so your profile will become immediately more connected to the places, things and experiences that matter to you.

Here's how it works:

  • Opt-in to new connections: When you next visit your profile page on Facebook, you'll see a box appear that recommends Pages based on the interests and affiliations you'd previously added to your profile. You can then either connect to all these Pages—by clicking "Link All to My Profile"—or choose specific Pages. You can opt to only connect to some of those Pages by going to "Choose Pages Individually" and checking or unchecking specific Pages. Once you make your choice, any text you'd previously had for the current city, hometown, education and work, and likes and interests sections of your profile will be replaced by links to these Pages. If you would still like to express yourself with free-form text, you can still use the "Bio" section of your profile. You also can also use features and applications like Notes, status updates or Photos to share more about yourself.

This may not seem like a problematic change but it could be for someone who has interests that they may prefer to be kept relatively secret or at least limited to a smaller group of friends (take a look at the EFF’s post about these changes).

Another controversial change is Facebook’s plans to work with content providers it has pre-approved to share your personal information with them. What will happen is that you will see content more tailored to your preferences or profile when you visit these sites and will have to opt-out if you don’t want to be greeted with this level of customization. This has attracted some attention and Facebook responded as follows:

We also received questions about the proposed new language in the Privacy Policy relating to our plans to work with some pre-approved partner websites to offer a personalized experience when you arrive at these sites. Based on your comments, we think it’s important to clarify a couple of points, even though this program has not yet been launched or even finalized.

First, it’s important to underscore that this will be a test with a handful of carefully selected partners to provide express personalization on their sites. These partners will be pre-selected, reviewed, and bound by contracts with Facebook – much like other partners we have worked with in other contexts to deliver unique and innovative experiences. For example, we’re working with Yahoo! to integrate Facebook across their properties, AOL to integrate our chat with AIM, and we first partnered with CNN.com to make their broadcast of the Presidential Inauguration more social with the launch of the Facebook live stream application.

In addition, partners who participate in this test will be required to provide an easy and prominent method for you to opt out directly from their website and delete your data if you do opt out. There will also be new features on Facebook.com to help you control your experience when you visit these sites.

In sum, the core idea behind this test is to work with partners to enable them to present you with a better, more relevant, and tailored experience when you visit their sites. While we have not finalized these features or partnerships, we think this is an exciting opportunity to make surfing the web a smoother and more engaging experience for people who use Facebook.

Again, this may give rise to an improved experience of those sites for many but what about Facebook users who don’t want their profile information to be handed to these content providers? What about users’ choice whether to pass that information along like they have with the current Facebook Connect option many sites implement? Facebook has decided (or perhaps Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s 20-something leader has decided) that we should be more public with our personal information and it is forcing a change in our habits to make the social Web fit this determination. I don’t know about you but I object to that as a user and as a lawyer despite how public I am online. I want to have a choice what I want to share and what I want to keep private.

Instead we have posts from Facebook telling us how much better we would be if we shared more with other people and if we used Facebook more to do just that. This sort of thing sounds a lot like propaganda to me to support someone else’s decision about my personal information.

I keep thinking back to that line in Spiderman where Uncle Ben tells Peter Parker that “with great power, comes great responsibility”. Facebook has more than 450 400 million users. If Facebook was a country it would be bigger than the United States in terms of population below China at 1.3 billion people and India at 1.2 billion people. There are more than 1.5 billion people using the Internet. Facebook’s users make up just less than a third of that number. By any measure, Facebook controls a significant number of people’s personal information and rather than taking steps to protect its users who should be given meaningful control over their personal information, Facebook is adopting a very paternalistic approach to this and is making these decisions for us based on a consent we gave to a previous version of its privacy policy and terms (yes, this is a direct consequence of you just checking the “I agree” box and signing up with Facebook in the first place – how is that for the power of a site terms and privacy policy?). If this doesn’t scare you, it should.

So what are the options? Opt out of Facebook? Perhaps but given Facebook’s size and growing influence on the social Web that could be the equivalent of opting out of society and heading for the hills. Another option is to remove the personal information you don’t want shared but that would just detract from your profile’s value to your friends. It is a difficult dilemma for many.

The bottom line here is that Facebook does not respect its users’ right to determine what is done with their personal information on Facebook, especially where those users don’t want a stripped down Facebook experience.

Published by Paul Jacobson

Enthusiast, writer, Happiness Engineer at @automattic. I take photos too. Passionate about my wife, Gina and #proudDad.

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