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Our Love-Hate Relationship With Facebook
by
Posted On June 1, 2010


I'm writing this on May 31, 2010-a day designated as QuitFacebookDay.com. The site states: "If you agree that Facebook doesn't respect you, your personal data, or the future of the web, you may want to join us." A counter indicated that some 33,607 folks are committed Facebook quitters.

Facebook was founded in 2004. By August 2008 it claimed 100 million users. According to the company, it now has more than 400 million active users (nearing 500 million), 50% of whom log on in any given day. The average user creates 70 pieces of content each month and more than 25 billion pieces of content (web links, news stories, blog posts, notes, photo albums, etc.) are shared each month.

Over the years, many folks have eagerly embraced the "social utility that helps people communicate more efficiently with their friends, family, and coworkers." For some it serves as a digital coffee shop, enabling the pleasant exchange of news and chitchat. For others it can serve as a way to let friends know you're ok after that last blizzard or torrential rain. And, isn't it great to get to see the pictures of a niece's graduation or the new baby.

Despite my natural reticence to personal digital exposure, I joined a few years back because of professional conference involvement. My Facebook friends are a messy but mostly pleasant mix of business colleagues and personal friends and neighbors. (I have just 126 friends on Facebook compared to 270 mostly professional connections on LinkedIn-and that's low compared to some folks.)

This spring, Facebook's introduction of new open network features (with automatic access by third-party apps) set off a firestorm of criticism over privacy issues. Many outraged folks threatened to delete their accounts and some actually did, including some high-profile web industry people. Some people have proposed the creation of an interoperable social networking protocol as an ideal alternative to Facebook (www.readwriteweb.com/archives/more_web_industry_leaders_quit_facebook_call_for_o.php).

Then The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook sent "personally identifiable" data to some advertisers about who was clicking on their ads, contrary to its privacy policy, which states that it doesn't share user information with advertisers without consent. Facebook says the practice was very limited and it has since stopped. But, as many observers have noted, it's the perception that Facebook doesn't care about users' privacy that is damaging.

U.S. lawmakers have pushed enquiries lately into the privacy practices of both Facebook and Google. The companies have been asked to cooperate with investigations into whether they are doing enough to protect users' privacy.

Then, in late May, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would roll out (over several weeks) a new, much simpler way for users to control their privacy settings. With one control, users would be able to determine who they want to share all of the content on their profile with-though more granular controls would let users specify who could see individual updates. Users will also be able to easily turn off access to their profile info by third-party apps and websites. Here's an explanation of the changes (www.facebook.com/privacy/explanation.php), and if you want to see what its current policy is (since it changes frequently), go to www.facebook.com/policy.php.

The early consensus seems to be that it is easier to view and modify what you are sharing. However, the defaults are still too open, IMHO, and some opt-out settings are difficult to find. As an extra check, the ReclaimPrivacy.org site provides an independent and open tool for scanning your Facebook privacy settings. A series of scans will warn you about settings that might be unexpectedly public.

However, the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary still has questions for Facebook. Representative John Conyers (D-MI) sent CEO Mark Zuckerberg a letter (http://www.rawstory.com/images/other/Chairman%20Conyers%20Letter%20to%20Facebook%20%285.28.10%29) requesting additional information on Facebook's privacy activities. "[W]e would appreciate a detailed explanation of the information about Facebook users that your company has provided to third parties without the knowledge of the account holders-particularly in circumstances in which the user did not expressly opt for this type of information sharing."

Meanwhile, there are things that users can easily control. Common sense would tell us not to publicize that we'll be away and our houses thus left vulnerable to potential thieves-yet many people still post their comings and goings, practically inviting a home burglary. Folks, the crooks know how to search Facebook and Twitter too. Don't make it easy for them. You can start by changing those privacy settings. Oh, and be careful about whom you agree to friend...

Looking Ahead

One final speculative comment-let me know what you think of this. Is it possible that social networks like Facebook will become mostly tools for organizations (public and private)-useful for public relations, marketing services, and eliciting and enabling easy customer feedback-while individuals concerned about privacy retreat to some other (maybe even not yet available) technology that allows them more control over their contacts and personal information? Will sites like Facebook really be just about social media broadcasting, personal endorsements, and influence?

To show the broad appeal of social networking sites, even the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) recently jumped into the social media craze. On May 20, 2010, the PTO unveiled its official Facebook page, www.facebook.com/USPTO.gov. The PTO intends to engage the public and the intellectual property community directly and provide real-time updates including press releases, information on upcoming events, and posts from the PTO's Director's Forum blog. The PTO's Facebook page allows Facebook users to provide comments, discuss, and offer feedback to the PTO directly on a wide range of issues and initiatives. The new Facebook page, however, does not replace the PTO's website, www.USPTO.gov, as the official source of information but, rather, provides a new channel for the public to connect with the agency.

For More Information

Electronic Frontier Foundation, "How to Get More Privacy From Facebook's New Privacy Controls," by Kurt Opsahl, www.eff.org/deeplinks/2010/05/more-privacy-facebook-new-privacy-controls

Electronic Privacy Information Center-Facebook Privacy, http://epic.org/privacy/facebook/

Facebook Privacy Guide: www.facebook.com/privacy/explanation.php

"10 Things You Need To Know About Today's Facebook Privacy Changes," www.allfacebook.com/2010/05/facebook-privacy-must-know/


Paula J. Hane is a freelance writer and editor covering the library and information industries. She was formerly Information Today, Inc.’s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks.

Email Paula J. Hane

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