Privacy Advocates: Facebook Has Fooled Us Once Too Often

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Monday, May 24, 2010


Complaints about Facebook's privacy practices and policies have been building toward a new crescendo, with growing interest on the part of Congress and regulators, as well as a budding viral movement to quit the network. In an effort to cut through the din, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg decided to address his company's attitude toward consumer privacy head-on in an editorial in The Washington Post.

He gets it, Zuckerberg wrote.

"The biggest message we have heard recently is that people want easier control over their information. Simply put, many of you thought our controls were too complex. Our intention was to give you lots of granular controls; but that may not have been what many of you wanted. We just missed the mark."

If at First You Don't Succeed

Zuckerberg promised that Facebook is developing new privacy controls "that are much simpler to use" as well as "an easy way to turn off all third-party services."

Also coming, he said, are stronger controls on how users can limit the visibility of their information.

At bottom, he promised readers, Facebook is guided by a few core principals:

  • Users have control over how their information is shared.
  • Facebook does not share personal information with people or services against the user's wishes.
  • Facebook does not give advertisers access to users' personal information.
  • Facebook does not and never will sell any personal information to anyone.
  • Facebook will always be kept a free service.

No Apology

Nowhere in the OpEd does Zuckerberg come out and apologize for the actions that have brought Facebook to this point: the institution of complex, multilayered privacy settings that are difficult to navigate; the recent change in its privacy policy that permits the automatic sharing of personal information; or even the news reported in The Wall Street Journal last week that Facebook and other social networks, including MySpace, have been sending advertisers data that could be used to uncover consumers' names. When notified of the breach, Facebook said it was making changes to fix the practice.

Instead, the closest Zuckerberg comes to a mea culpa is an explanation that Facebook has to move quickly to satisfy the evolving social media connection demands of a user base of more than 400 million people and that "sometimes we move too fast."

All the Right Things

The lack of a specific apology aside, Zuckerberg's column appears to have struck a receptive chord.

"It is certainly encouraging. I am pleased at the tone, and his comments represent a change in how Facebook has responded to the concerns of its users," Leslie Harris, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology, told TechNewsWorld.

That these statements were made in an op-ed in The Washington Post, she added, suggests the company's commitment to them is strong.

Been There, Heard That

However, this is not the first time Zuckerberg has promised to do better with users' privacy -- and his words now carry little weight among privacy advocates, who say they'll have to see material evidence of Facebook's privacy changes before they believe in it.

Concluded Harris: "We will have to wait and see what the changes actually are before we can say that Facebook is fundamentally changing how it deals with the privacy of its users."

"The problem is, we have gone through this before -- what Mark said this morning is similar to what he said a year ago," Marc Rotenberg, executive director of Electronic Privacy Information Center, told TechNewsWorld.

The statements are also quite different from Facebook's actual practices, he said -- and those discrepancies are the foundation of the accusations EPIC and other privacy organizations have made against Facebook in a complaint recently filed with the FTC.

"We are claiming that Facebook's policy practices are unfair and deceptive, because [they don't] honor the commitments it has made," Rotenberg said.

Zuckerberg "doesn't have a lot of credibility right now," Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, told TechNewsWorld.

Although waiting to see exactly what changes will be introduced, Stephens noted that even the number of changes Facebook has made to its policies should be a red flag to consumers.

They Keep On Coming

Over its long and convoluted privacy policy history, Facebook has made several stabs at best practices, Stephens continued.

"Keeping track of their privacy policy changes is a full time job for an organization -- much less a consumer," he remarked.

Kurt Opsahl of the Electronic Frontier Foundation recently put together a time line of Facebook's privacy changes.

The long-term trend is clear, he wrote. While Facebook originally offered users simple and powerful controls over their personal information, as it grew larger and became more important, "it's slowly but surely helped itself -- and its advertising and business partners -- to more and more of its users' information, while limiting the users' options to control their own information."

The Washington Stick

There is a chance that Facebook might truly be ready to make longstanding changes, Stephens said. If it is, that's because the risk of regulatory or legislative action -- or both -- is greater now than it's ever been, and Facebook is furiously backpeddling to avoid it.

"Facebook would prefer not to be regulated," he noted, "and it is willing to make certain changes voluntarily."

There is something to that theory, Patrick Kerley, senior digital strategist at Levick Strategic Communications, told TechNewsWorld. "I don't think it is a coincidence that Facebook ran this op-ed in The Washington Post." The paper is read by many lawmakers.

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has already asked the FTC to design privacy rules for social networking sites.

No matter what its motivation is, Facebook does appear to be getting serious about privacy, Rob Enderle, principal of the Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld. However, that doesn't mean that it won't screw up its handling of privacy again.

The problem, in Enderle's view, is that "they continue thinking like a technology company and are treating this much as they would a bug, by fixing the product or changing rules."

What Facebook needs to do, he said, is start thinking like a consumer company and focus on protecting its image -- or it will eventually start bleeding badly.
By Erika Morphy
TechNewsWorld

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