Facebook’s sleight of hand with Groups and profile information downloads

Facebook announced a number of changes on the 6th which signified a privacy and personal information control about-turn by the biggest online social network on the planet. I previously commented that Facebook has become something of a privacy fiend recently. Why did I say this? Here are a few reasons and approaches that concerned me from a privacy perspective:

  • Facebook makes determinations how users should be sharing their information or what the current trends are;
  • It then changes its privacy policy and terms of use to achieve these perceived changes to how personal information is handled; and
  • Facebook then opens users’ personal information up by default to align with its determinations of what the trends are or how it believes we should handle our personal information.

Since then, Facebook changed how much control users have over how much of their profile information is shared on the site by improving the privacy settings page. This was a welcome change coming on the heels of its latest push for even greater publicity.

Profile information downloads

Facebook’s announcements yesterday included two pretty substantial features or products. The first is a new feature which enables users to download all (everything except what users may have removed from their profiles beforehand) their profile information. This includes messages, updates and content. The feature will apparently compress everything into a zipfile and make it available for download. If you happen to use Facebook as your photo sharing website this could work out to a fair sized file (I am not sure if you can pick which categories of data to export). This is a good feature and it addresses one of the complaints about Facebook, namely that it has been very difficult to get your profile data out of the site. That said, Facebook still hasn’t made it easy for users to readily export their profile information to another social service as a data stream (I stand to be corrected here but I haven’t seen options like this in my profile).

New Facebook Groups

Another new product which Facebook announced, with much excitement, is a new Groups product (All Facebook has a terrific post about Facebook Groups which you should take a look at). This is a complete rewrite of the old Groups and is intended to help users segment their Facebook friends better according to social groups. Groups is also the most controversial of the new features/products. It is designed to replace the underutilized list functionality which Mark Zuckerberg said most users just haven’t taken advantage of as well as a way to create more specific communities of interest which are analogous to groups we have seen on services like Yahoo! Groups and perhaps even Google Groups.

While much was said about how Facebook Groups will enable users to better keep in touch with their friends, contextually, people who have started to encounter the new product have complained about how they are being included in Groups without first opting in to the Groups in the first place. As I understand the new Groups product, the underlying algorithms and/or group creators’ friend selections will help populate groups with members who appear to be appropriate members of those groups. In theory the algorithms should add your actual family members to your family groups, university friends to the university groups and so on (I am still a little unsure about this aspect of Groups but Mark Zuckerberg did mention the role algorithms play in his presentation). In another All Facebook post highlighting the problems with the new Facebook Groups, Nick O’Neill pointed out the following:

There have been a number of complaints from users, most significantly that group membership is now opt-out. That means your friends can instantly subscribe you to noisy Facebook groups. If you woke up today and had a bunch of notifications, the main reason is probably that you were subscribed to groups by your friends who thought they were being kind. The problem is that I need to manually go in an unsubscribe from all the notifications I receive from noisy groups because my friends have added to them. This is more work for me to do!

The problem with this approach is that users will find themselves pulled into Facebook Groups they may still prefer to be left out of. The old Groups and (current) Pages still require users to opt-in to be part of the Groups or Pages. The new Groups changes that option and forces users to opt-out of the Groups they don’t wish to be part of. Why is this such a problem? Well, one of the ways the new Groups product works is as a sort of mailing list:

When a group member posts to the group, everyone in the group will receive a notification about that post. Now I won’t have to guess anymore about whether my parents saw the pictures I posted of their grandkids; when I post in my family group, I’ll know that they’ve been notified about it and that only they will see it. Since information posted in my new groups is only visible to group members by default, I can feel confident about who sees what I post.

Another concern is that group members can’t hide the new group chat functionality. As Nick points out:

Yesterday, many users quickly realized that group chat is annoying as hell … especially if you are a member of a large group. Suddenly your browser tab is flashing every couple of seconds to let you know that someone else has posted a message. The only way to shut off a group chat room at this point is to shut off chat all together. In other words, there’s way too much noise. My guess is that Facebook will make it possible to hide a room’s chat at some point.

Conversely, I’ve found that by popping out the Facebook chat it can suddenly become manageable in that you can hide the chat window behind other browsers. Something about this doesn’t feel right though.

What strikes me is how disingenuous Facebook has been about Groups and how, despite its emphasis on improved user control over their privacy and profile information, Facebook is up to its old tricks again. Take a look at this video introducing Groups. Do you see any indication that users could be added to groups without their consent and practically spammed until they either give in or opt-out?

A number of other high profile personalities have similarly criticized Facebook for its blunder. Mathew Ingram mentioned a number of responses in his GigaOm post. Here are a few of the reactions:

p>Anil Dash, founder of Expert Labs, said Thursday morning on Twitter: “Oh, Facebook. I wanted to like groups, but now I’m on 50 unwanted email lists. More incompetent defaults, or an attempt to undermine email?” Others complained about a deluge of auto-add emails from Facebook Groups, including Daniel Victor, the online community manager for TED.com, who said Thursday: “I’d rather be invited than added to a group on Facebook. Woke up with 45 unexpected e-mail notifications today. Spammer’s dream.” Among those who also weren’t impressed with the rollout were technology blogger Dwight Silverman and Socialtext co-founder Adina Levin, who said that the current implementation of the Groups feature “has some serious social design flaws.”.

Jason Calacanis has been a pretty vocal critic for some time now and his email to Zuckerberg and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is worth reading too.

So where does this leave Facebook users? Well, for now it seems that as Groups rolls out to Facebook’s 500+ million users, more and more people will find themselves inundated with emails from groups they have been opted into. In South Africa this presents a real challenge because, as I have mentioned previously, our changing privacy legislation is requiring a shift from opt-out mailing options to opt-in. This potentially places Facebook at odds with the law from a consumer protection and privacy perspective largely because Facebook’s privacy policy does seem to include consents to be spammed the way Groups spams users who are subsumed into the application. The closest the Facebook privacy policy comes to dealing with Groups is what it says about the Facebook Platform and 3rd party applications:

4.  Information You Share With Third Parties.

Facebook Platform.  As mentioned above, we do not own or operate the applications or websites that use Facebook Platform. That means that when you use those applications and websites you are making your Facebook information available to someone other than Facebook. Prior to allowing them to access any information about you, we require them to agree to terms that limit their use of your information (which you can read about in Section 9 of our Statement of Rights and Responsibilities) and we use technical measures to ensure that they only obtain authorized information.  To learn more about Platform, visit our About Platformpage.

Connecting with an Application or Website.  When you connect with an application or website it will have access to General Information about you.  The term General Information includes your and your friends’ names, profile pictures, gender, user IDs, connections, and any content shared using the Everyone privacy setting.  We may also make information about the location of your computer or access device and your age available to applications and websites in order to help them implement appropriate security measures and control the distribution of age-appropriate content.  If the application or website wants to access any other data, it will have to ask for your permission.

We give you tools to control how your information is shared with applications and websites that use Platform.  For example, you can block all platform applications and websites completely or block specific applications from accessing your information by visiting your Applications and Websites privacy setting or the specific  application’s “About” page.  You can also use your privacy settingsto limit which of your information is available to “everyone”.

The trick with Groups, though, is that it isn’t a 3rd party application. It is a Facebook application and users can’t remove it like they can 3rd party applications. That leaves users in a position where they can (and probably will) be co-opted into Groups whether they like it or not and associated with Groups created by other users, regardless of whether they want to be part of those groups initially (users can opt-out of these groups but consider what that would involve if even half your Facebook friends added you to a group). The EFF addressed this in their recommendation to Facebook in a post titled “Facebook Moves Closer to EFF Bill of Privacy Rights” (I don’t share the EFF’s optimism):

Recommendation 3: As a strong proponent of the power of anonymous and pseudonymous speech, EFF further recommends that Facebook also allow for another category of groups: anonymous groups. There are many people, such as violence survivors or HIV positive individuals or religious groups, who may want to have a group discussion without revealing their identities. Facebook should enhance the Groups feature by allowing for the creation of groups where the membership list is secret from members (i.e. just available to the group’s administrators, if anyone), and where group members can interact using pseudonyms rather than their real names.

Our longstanding concern for anonymous speech aside, though, EFF is very pleased with today’s Groups revamp, which we hope will provide users with a powerful new tool for managing their privacy on the Facebook site.

Bottom line with Groups is that the opt-out nature of Groups and users apparent inability to pre-approve their addition to other users’ groups is problematic. The big question is whether users will care about this abuse of their profile information beyond the inconvenience of having to opt-out of all the groups they are added to? My guess is probably not and that is based on the relatively small opposition to Facebook privacy abuses in the past by users. It is still something to be borne in mind, though.

Applications and privacy

The third big announcement was an improved dashboard where users can better control how applications make use of their profile information. Facebook has shifted the responsibility for privacy issues relating to 3rd party applications to 3rd party developers and this new dashboard gives users more information about what personal information these applications use. Ironically Facebook gives users more control and information over 3rd party applications although it leaves it up to them (and requires them) to develop and abide by their own privacy policies and processes.

Like the ability to download your profile information, this is a very positive step. Anything that gives users better control over their personal information and how applications use that personal information is a good thing all around. Better information about how this personal information is used is an essential component of informed consent which is, in turn, the goal of a good privacy policy.

Rounding it all up

Facebook took very positive steps with two of the three new features/products it announced. At the same time it reiterated its complete failure to appreciate the need to give users meaningful control over other aspects of their profile information when it comes to Groups. This does seem to be a fairly typical approach, though. It may be motivated by a genuine desire to bring users into the Groups fold and show them the benefits of the product but just as Google fumbled doing a similar thing with Google Buzz when it launched, Facebook has messed this one up quite badly. what remains to be seen is whether Facebook will act quickly to address these concerns or will simply ignore the vocal minority like it usually does.

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