Thursday, May 13, 2010

Facebook & Your Privacy

When I first joined “The Facebook,” much of the allure of the social network was that it was only available to a handful of people. You could only create an account if you had an email address from certain schools (starting with Harvard and other Ivy League institutions, and eventually any college or university). It was a big deal for users when they opened the site to high school students, and a bigger deal when Facebook opened registration to anyone over the age of 13.

Since the early days, Facebook has always pushed to become more inclusive (and, some might say, more intrusive). Each step of the way, users have complained, yet most have gotten used the changes. But where do you go after welcoming in a global audience? A natural next step is to make those profiles more public, so that you don’t even have to be a Facebook member to access some or all of a person’s information – and that’s exactly what Facebook has done.

The social network’s most recent round of changes, which include Instant Personalization of partner sites and an updated Privacy Policy, have met with harsh backlash from privacy advocates and concerned users. In fact, earlier this month, public interest groups lodged a formal complaint against Facebook with the FTC.

One of the most persistent complaints is that Facebook makes it too difficult for users to understand and control their privacy options. While Facebook does offer granular control of your privacy settings, the following infographic from the New York Times illustrates exactly how user-unfriendly this system can be:

People want to be able to decide what they share on the Web, not have companies dictate it to them. Part of the challenge Facebook is up against is the expectations it created by beginning as a Walled Garden. People join Twitter with the understanding that what they’re posting is shared to the world, but most Facebook users didn’t sign up for that type of exposure. It’s a bait-and-switch if you don’t make these changes easy for users to understand, and force them to opt-out rather than allowing them to opt-in.

To counter its critics, Facebook will supposedly hold an all hands meeting today at 4pm PST to discuss user privacy issues. It remains to be seen whether this will result in the rolling back of some of the social network’s newest features, adjustments to its data sharing policies, or the addition of new tools to help users protect their information.

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