Sunday, December 21, 2014

Has Facebook really 'gone rogue'?

Wired's Ryan Singel thinks so. After Facebook's recent decisions to make previously friends-only information public by default, users should check and recheck their privacy settings.

Has Facebook really 'gone rogue'?

Ryan Singel clearly thinks so, and then some: In an article published Friday in Wired, he says Facebook is "drunk on founder Mark Zuckerberg’s dreams of world domination."

I can't match the hyperbole, but it's hard to argue with Singel's basic point:

Facebook used to be a place to share photos and thoughts with friends and family and maybe play a few stupid games that let you pretend you were a mafia don or a homesteader. It became a very useful way to connect with your friends, long-lost friends and family members. Even if you didn’t really want to keep up with them.

Soon everybody — including your uncle Louie and that guy you hated from your last job — had a profile.

And Facebook realized it owned the network.

Then Facebook decided to turn “your” profile page into your identity online — figuring, rightly, that there’s money and power in being the place where people define themselves. But to do that, the folks at Facebook had to make sure that the information you give it was public.

That, he says, was the genesis of Facebook's information power grab, starting in December and culminating last month with the creation of a new "Friends, Tags and Connections" section that makes much of your basic information public by default.

More coverage
Have you changed your Facebook privacy settings?
Yes, to hide more information
Yes, to share more information
No

Singel is particularly distressed by Facebook's new "Like" button, which he says is out of your privacy control. "All the items you list as things you like must become public and linked to public profile pages," he says. "If you don’t want them linked and made public, then you don’t get them."

Singel is right - Facebook spokeswoman Meredith Chin confirmed that to me this afternoon. But the details are even trickier than he describes.

Facebook's privacy controls set "Things I Like" to default to a privacy setting of "Everyone," as they do for where you live and your "Activities." But you can reset any of them to be accessible only to friends. As of its latest  update (April 22, 2010), the Facebook Privacy Policy says the only things you can't limit are your name and profile picture.

But here's the catch, as Chin explains it: If, say, you're a fan of U2, or like running, you can limit which of your friends  see that in your profile. But Facebook considers the connection you're creating to be public, so your name will still be on the U2 page or the Running page. "The only way to make sure that it doesn't show up is to remove it from your profile," Chin says.

Chin says there are other ways to share your tastes in music or other things without sharing them with the entire world. "'About Me' is still a free-form section," she says. So are status updates - though Singel warns that your "public update" about your boss' "crazy great idea" might still show up on the Facebook page "My Crazy Boss" simply because it has the right words. (Chin says could happen, but only if you set your "Status Update" to be available to "Everyone.")

Default settings are the key here, and they absolutely matter.  I don't know if any academics have studied this - doctoral thesis, anyone? - but my hunch is that with most websites or services, a majority of users accept software developers' recommendations.  I'd like to think it's because we all trust other people's good will and reasonable intentions.The truth is that I think most of us are just lazy. (Chin says that more than half of Facebook members now vary from the defaults.)

Facebook's Privacy Policy isn't the worst, but it's still plenty hard to penetrate. For the record, it says, that "Everyone" Information may "be imported, exported, distributed, and redistributed by us and others without privacy limitations." So Singel is right to hear a loud "Ka-ching."

No matter what your privacy settings, Facebook can use any and all of your personal information to deliver personalized ads to you. As my colleague Monica Yant Kinney pointed out in a recent column, that's why she gets creepy pitches for "Free Uggs for 38-year-old women" and "Scholarships for Moms." [Full disclosure: I registered on Facebook for work reasons a few months ago but have so far never done anything more. My college-student daughters thought it was creepy for adults to use the site, and I've humored them.]

Facebook deserves all the complaints and scrutiny it's getting. You can see the Electronic Privacy Information Center's recent complaints and a wealth of other links here

But don't expect regulators or politicians to step in quickly and fix the problem. If you use Facebook, you need to learn how the site treats - and plans to profit from - your personal information. Then you should check and recheck your privacy settings, to make sure your information isn't being expropriated by, um, default. (And don't forget to look at all the various controls, such as the separate one over "Search" that sets Internet-wide sharing as the default.)

Consider it your own personal bulwark against world domination.

Here's an update on the use of default settings, via email from Chin:

As of January, more than half of our users had customized their privacy settings — about 20% prior to the December transition and an additional more than 30% through the transition.  In some cases, people restricted information and in others made it more open.  We believe this is more engagement on privacy than any service has achieved.  We are extremely proud to be a leader in fostering personalized privacy.

So if Facebook has made 50 percent of its members actually aware enough to act, perhaps it's a silver lining to a dark cloud over privacy. But I have to wonder about the other 50 percent.

Jeff Gelles Inquirer Business Columnist
About this blog

Jeff Gelles, who writes the Inquirer's weekly Consumer 14.0 and Tech Life columns, takes a broad look at the marketplace of goods, services, and ideas.

Reach Jeff at jgelles@phillynews.com.

Jeff Gelles Inquirer Business Columnist
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