Facebook Has Search Engines To Thank for Privacy Snafu

A few days ago, the folks at Facebook reiterated once again the schism between how they behave when they're thinking of their members and how they behave when they're thinking of their wallets.

Let's recap: When they're thinking of their members, they respond to trends like an increasing desire for real-time updates with a new live feed, keeping in mind that some people might not like it and, with a click of a tab, allowing you the power and control to retain the old sporadic news feed.

When they're thinking of their wallets, however, they sell all of your information to search engines, and make it as difficult as possible for you to opt out of contributing your part to the cash flow.

The new privacy arrangement is opt-out, not opt-in. They give you the illusion of choice when you log in ("We've changed our privacy settings; have a look and see if you want to keep them this way"), lulling you into a false sense of security and failing to mention that the other things that have changed -- like the fact that your friends list is now visible to everyone on the Internet by default -- are buried much, much deeper on the site.



Naturally, and with a sort of "Here we go again" flavor, the shift has immediately provoked a backlash among FB members and privacy advocates like the Electronic Frontier Foundation. What it's done for me, though, is remind me of the importance of one of my Golden Rules: Never put anything online that you wouldn't want to see on the front page of the newspaper.

Just don't. Embarrassing-but-human photos, OK. Photos of you engaging in illegal activity, not OK. Jokes, OK. Vitriolic arguments with your soon-to-be-ex-wife, not OK.

To be fair, Facebook isn't alone in this move, anymore than Eve was alone in taking a bite of that Granny Smith. If it weren't for a certain Redmond-based search engine waving wads of cash in Mark Z.'s face, there would have been very little reason to open up the databanks. And now 350 million individual Facebook users find themselves in the same position as every newspaper in the world: Do we really think it's okay for search engines to appropriate our information and make money from it?

*Kaila pauses. Reflects for several minutes. Doesn't know the answer.*

On the one hand: newspapers are in the business of providing information, not restricting access to it. They benefit when more people come to their sites by way of search engines. Much like the recording industry, they're also facing a seismic shift in the way people access information, and will ultimately have to adapt their business models to reflect the fact that consumers no longer play by the old rules.

On the other hand: they invest a lot of time and money to create (we hope) quality journalistic content. And it's one thing to publish a snippet and a link, but when that content is republished in its entirety, the newspaper is not sustainable.

And we individuals are not in the business of providing information, through our own channels or otherwise. We are in the business of being ourselves, of having our friends and going to work and living our lives. Advertise to us if you want, but don't suck us into supplying you with the raw materials for your inventory. It's not what we signed up for.

What do you think about it? Let me know in the comments, or on a channel where I choose to make my data public: @kcolbin.

6 comments about "Facebook Has Search Engines To Thank for Privacy Snafu ".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. Esther Surden from E. Surden Associates, December 15, 2009 at 12:14 p.m.

    No, I really don't think it's OK for Facebook to make this information available by default or for search engines to use it. I don't think people really understand how important this change was to their on-line privacy. I worry about the occasional users of Facebook, those who go to the site every couple of weeks, like many Baby Boomers I know. How will they know that they have to go into Facebook to change their Privacy settings to protect themselves?

  2. John Jainschigg from World2Worlds, Inc., December 15, 2009 at 12:44 p.m.

    It's completely unacceptable. The other point being: whether or not we (as individuals or organizations) might wish to opt into a scheme that makes our social networks visible and might increase our traffic, we have no right to expose our 'friends' thereby. To make this acceptable, you need at least two levels of opt-out by default, including one that says 'Regardless of my friends' privacy settings, do not show the fact of my association with friends, or any PII, to drive-by viewers."

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, December 15, 2009 at 1:22 p.m.

    Listen to the experts: You push send anywhere on anything, it's not just yours anymore. To Esther: This information, bogus as it is, is everywhere. Not that is means much anyway.

    Kaila, great points about newspaper. Thank you. Please spread the news.

  4. Ronald Stack from Zavee LLC, December 15, 2009 at 1:32 p.m.

    I'm not sure this is really a moral or ethical issue (unless FB is trying to deceive its users). Most of us, I believe, grew up with a near-consensus regarding what information about us could be obtained by whom when and for what purpose. However, those rules didn't obtain moral force just because most people agreed with them. Testing privacy-related conduct against the consensus had a lot of advantages, including transparency and simplicity, but ease of application didn't give those rules moral force either.

    One of the first things I noticed when I started working with social media was that the consensus was gone and that privacy had become transactional. Different sites offered different options and users selected their settings based on their unique levels of comfort and concern. I think there is a lot of merit in being able to customize privacy: Have a boss that follows employee use of social media? Deal with it one way. Want to become "internet famous"? Handle things differently.

    I don't think that privacy by transaction has any more moral force than privacy by consensus, and I confess to some concern that transactional privacy may be the slippery slope to no privacy at all. Still, as in any market, the way to get (or keep) more privacy is to bid up its value. If Facebook sees economic advantages from providing more privacy, or greater risk from providing less, as rational economic actors they should meet their customers' needs.

  5. Thom Kennon from Free Radicals, December 15, 2009 at 7:36 p.m.

    You have to give them credit for being so hamfistedly obvious. It’s like “can I speak with your mom? Are either of your parents home, Mark?...could you put one of them on please?...”

    Gimme a break. What Facebook did with those radio buttons and their options on their new “privacy page” is create a false choice environment - one where the user doesn't have enough information easily at hand to make truly informed choices. Choices about stuff that kinda sorta might matter a lot about who owns, uses and shares my FB data.

    So - and this is why they engineered the form the way they did - since you don't necessarily remember what filters were set for your "old settings", without the laborious effort (I did it, it's an ugly and confusing form, unlike this one...) of drilling down and revising all your privacy settings - the average user might be tempted to defer to my "old settings" and be done with it.

    But that's what FB wants us to do, (and frankly, as a selfish marketer, I kind sorta do too...). You see - you may not change the "old settings" but unless you read really carefully their "new rules" you won't know what sort of permission you may be granting without doing anything.

    Uh-oh. See what I see? It's called "passive opt-in" and it is freaking totally uncool marketing worst practice.

    Here's the thing: Facebook is a really really really really bad place for anything close to traditional brand advertising or even "social media". So FB struggles mightily for ways it can "monetize" its members. Exposing their content and profiles and streams to public search indexing and marketers opens up new and fresh opportunities for that potential monetization.

    I'm all for them figuring out cool new ways to pay for keeping the clean and well-lighted space's lights on. In fact, if they were really inventive from a business and marketing standpoint, they'd concentrate on how to innovate and monetize the incredible property they picked up earlier this year and my fave socnet - FriendFeed.

    But please, don't start being deceptive yet smarmily unctuous about how uber-privacy conscious you are. Especially when you use evil forms design infected with uncool marketing practice to drive people to make choices they might not otherwise make.

    At least not just to increase the number of peeps who mistakenly expose their Facebook selves to hungry, venal marketers like me.

  6. Kaila Colbin from Boma Global, December 16, 2009 at 7:52 p.m.

    Thanks for the great comments, guys! I especially like that point about the "false choice environment", Thom -- well said.

Next story loading loading..