Big changes are happening at Facebook, and they mean that what you do and say, on and off of Facebook, is now being more heavily tracked and more broadly shared. If you think that your Facebook data is somewhat private — e.g., shared only with friends and people you specify — you are wrong.
Facebook announced dramatic changes in their service at their annual “F8″ conference on Wednesday. Facebook used to be a network where you could establish semi-private communities with family, friends and like-minded sets of people. Now it’s an internet-wide info-sharing platform that can keep your friends, and the businesses and advertisers that Facebook partners with, fully briefed on all of your internet-based activities and opinions.
The biggest announcement was the introduction of the Open Graph and the new “Like” buttons for the web at large. Yesterday, you could only “like” or “fan” something that appeared on Facebook’s web site. Now you can “like” things anywhere that the social graph and like buttons are implemented. What you “like” will be shared with Facebook, your Facebook friends, and all of the applications you subscribe to on Facebook, and, depending on your Facebook privacy settings, the world at large.
Also this week, and all of a sudden, despite what you might have confirmed a few months ago when Facebook started this paradigm shift, your likes, interests and job history are now Google searchable. That’s right: even if you went in and flagged them as private, your only way to protect this information, as of yesterday, is to remove it (and wait a month for it to fall out of Google’s cache).
Online privacy is a relative concept
Much of the Facebook privacy that we lost wasn’t real privacy to begin with, because any time you add an application (such as a quiz), that application’s developers have complete access to your entire Facebook profile. Worse, anytime a friend invites you to use an application, that application gets access to your profile. You don’t have to lift a finger to have data that you’ve marked as private shared with strangers; you just have to have friends on Facebook who aren’t thinking that, by inviting you to compare movie favs, they’re telling a complete stranger your gender, age, birthdate, job history, sharing all of your photos and publishing your wall to them.
Why “Love it or leave it” is unfair
I have friends who are somewhat blaze about all of this. After all, nobody put a gun to my head and ordered me to join Facebook. I just got so many requests from friends and family that I caved. And, once I caved, I connected to a bunch of “blast from the past” friends, extended family, former co-workers and current associates. So, now have a real investment in Facebook as a social connector. Sure, if I don’t like these changes, I can just delete my account and be done with it. But I’m throwing away far more than just a social network profile — I’m tossing out my connection to my communities of friends, family and professional associates, who are now expecting me to be on Facebook with them.
I could decide that I don’t like the policies of my local utility company, too, and just cancel my service. But the services they provide enable other services that I want/require as well — such as light, heat, computing, communication. Leaving Facebook wouldn’t be as extreme as canceling power services, but, with 40 million users and climbing, Facebook is like a utility in many people’s lives, and it supports services in such a way that relationships beyond our relationship with the service provider are centered there.
This is what is so dishonest about CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s repeated assertion that Facebook is only following the direction of the Internet as an open sharing platform. He is right abut the trend. But this is the equivalent of saying that the trend is now for baggy pants and see-through tops, so all of your clothing has been swapped out in accordance with the trend. The internet is all things to all people, and there are plenty of places on it where privacy and closed community are the norm. Just because the internet is becoming more open, it doesn’t mean that Internet users need to be dragged into this new era.
It all boils into “Opt Out” vs. “Opt In”, and respecting rather than walking all over your customers. Facebook began with an assumption of privacy; changes in that assumption should be acknowledged by each user before they are enacted. Facebook could have easily developed their platform in ways that give users the choice of having open or private profiles. Instead, they’ve simply switched our private data to public without asking if that compromises our security, reputation or preferences. And it doesn’t escape my notice that there’s great money to be made in having more personal info about what I like and who I share that information with.
What you should do if this concerns you
If you went in and verified/altered your Facebook privacy settings a month or two ago, you should make another visit ASAP. Facebook has turned it around. Beth Kanter has a good write-up on what has changed. If you have any custom Facebook Pages, look out there as well — even if you’ve set profile data to private, if you link to any of your profile info from a Facebook page, it will default back to public. Whatever you do with your privacy settings, most of your basic profile data is now public and there is no option to make it private. So review your employment history, “about” and likes sections to make sure that it only has data that you don’t mind sharing with Google searchers and every advertiser on earth.
It all boils down to this
Facebook is now like Twitter and Google, with even less options for privacy than those big public networks offer. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, it’s just a very different thing, and the crime here is mostly that “F8″ and “social graph” are not terms that the vast majority of the 40 million Facebook users are paying any attention to. If you’re reading this, you know better, so you can set your profile up with information that you don’t mind being in the public domain, and you can decide if you’re willing to “like” things on the internet and, thereby, expose yourself and your Facebook community to the demographic analysis and actions that will ensue. I won’t be abandoning Facebook over this, but I’m very restrictive in my use of it, and will continue to approach it with great caution.