David Kirkpatrick

May 1, 2010

Facebook and privacy

The huge social networking site (and new heavyweight champs of the internet for the foreseeable future) has an absolutely terrible record regarding privacy.

This post from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation posits that the right to privacy isn’t a right to Facebook. I completely agree. Facebook doesn’t charge its millions (and millions) of users in exchange for very heavy, and increasing, levels of data mining. The post also laments the current threat of Congressional action in reaction to Facebook’s latest pubic statements and actions against user privacy. Another great point

This bit from the link is correct:

Certainly some users may still object to this tradeoff. But if you don’t like it, don’t use it. Facebook is neither a right nor a necessity. Moreover, it is a free tool that individuals can use in exchange for online advertising. In fact, one high-profile Facebook user, the German Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner, has already threatened to close down her Facebook profile in protest of Facebook’s new privacy policies. Users that feel this way about Facebook’s changes should vote with their mouse and click their way to greener pastures. Companies respond to market forces and consumer demands, and if enough users object to the privacy policy of Facebook, these individuals should be able to find a start-up willing to provide a privacy-rich social networking experience.

But this second point actually perfectly illustrates where Facebook has the wrong approach toward user privacy, both from a business standpoint and personal protection standpoint:

Even Facebook responds to public opinion and consumer pressure. In December, Facebook modified its privacy settings so that certain information including friends list, gender, city, and profile photo, would be public information. In response to complaints from some users, Facebook modified its interface to give users more control over the privacy of different types of information. Neither was this the first time that Facebook revised its policies in response to consumer behavior. In 2006, Facebook altered its policy regarding its “news feed” feature that updates users about their friends’ activities.

The problem here is Facebook has repeatedly and arbitrarily taken actions that once exposed managed to royally piss off its user base to the point it had to immediately backtrack and change the changes. Do that once and its an example of a young company going through growing pains. Do it repeatedly and those actions are just those of a very bad corporate actor consistently pushing as hard as it can with zero regard for its user base. And that user base is all Facebook has going for it. It is massive and not going away overnight, but pressed hard enough and over enough events, and that user base could very well could disappear. It would probably take a defection of its growing middle-aged and up contingent, but Facebook would be very foolhardy to think it couldn’t happen.

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