Last Gasp of Internet Privacy in Facebook Policy Debate

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facebook_small.jpgADOTAS – Reading the latest blog post from Facebook regarding its highly disputed privacy policy shift, I was amused to see at the bottom it asked me to become a fan of the site governance page when according to an email sent to advertisers, becoming a fan is going the way of the dinosaur on the social network. In the next few weeks, if users want to follow a brand, they won’t become a fan, but simply “like” it.

There are few terms more vague than “like,” so it’s a perfect term for Facebook — what’s more ambiguous than being friends with someone on Facebook (pretend MySpace doesn’t exist — it’s not hard to do)? And I may not be a lawyer, but if there’s something more vague than Facebook’s privacy policy, I’m yet to find it.

The redline version of the proposed privacy changes (which ironically has all the changes highlighted in blue) suggests that the network will share general information with “pre-approved” partner sites while a user is still logged into Facebook to allow the user a “better, more relevant, and tailored experience” experience on these partner sites.

What the hell does that mean? Someone asked me in the comments to my previous Facebook report to give him an example and I replied that’s the problem — I can’t. In arguing that this new round of changes will unleash a big user backlash, Jason Kincaid from TechCrunch suggests:

“Imagine what will happen the first time Joe Facebooker visits a third-party site he’s never been to and is greeted by the smiling faces of his friends, his most recent shared updates, and content tailored to his gender, location, and age. There’s a decent chance he’s going to assume something has gone terribly, terribly wrong — maybe he’s been hacked or phished.”

That’s not a very welcoming thought. But Facebook’s policy changes add further skepticism about how safe the data is in the hands of developers. Joe Vallender of SiftMedia had an extremely thoughtful comment:

“I don’t like when it starts talking about applications having to adhere to the rules as opposed to the rules being enforced. The API is fairly extensive, and I cannot tell… where and how requests for specific pieces of information are authorized –- perhaps they aren’t at all and as the [privacy policy] suggests, we are relying on the app developers themselves to ‘not look at’ our info.”

Dislike is a far clearer term — that’s a word with teeth. And the dislike of users and consumer advocates over Facebook’s proposed policy changes has been vocal. The protest getting the most media coverage comes from German Consumer Protection Minister Isle Aigner, who threatens to kick Facebook to the curb over the proposed policy changes.

Citing a recent study by German consumer organization Stiftung Warentest, Aigner notes that Facebook received poor marks all around, including user-data policy and user rights. In addition, the social network refused to provide information on data security.

“It is therefore all the more astounding that Facebook is not willing to eliminate the existing shortcomings regarding data protection, but is instead going even further,” Aigner writes. “Decisions such as this will not engender trust in an enterprise in the long term.”

In a response to the plethora of negative comments, Barry Schnitt, a director on the communications and privacy team, writes that these changes haven’t been enacted or even finalized, hence why Facebook had a commenting period to collect feedback. To try and quell fears, he adds:

“In addition, partners who participate in this test will be required to provide an easy and prominent method for you to opt out directly from their website and delete your data if you do opt out. There will also be new features on Facebook.com to help you control your experience when you visit these sites.”

Schnitt also compares this new initiative with third-party partners to integrations with Aol and Yahoo!, but there’s a big difference there. If users want to incorporate Facebook into their Yahoo! setup, they’ll opt in. Facebook’s suggested changes are forcing them to opt out.

No matter how benign they may seem, Kincaid notes that Facebook is shoving these partnerships “down its users’ throats, and it’s the one deciding which sites are trustworthy enough to swap your data with.”

Users have the feeling this is not what they signed up for — and in truth it’s not. Many people are content with the current ecosystem — advertisers can target based on demographics. Facebook isn’t really sharing your data.

Even with a bill-me-later magazine deal or one of those scammy CD clubs, you have to sign up. Well, it doesn’t work that way with a lot of the Internet, especially since Web 2.0 came to town. So we’re back to that same old argument that haunts almost all of digital advertising — is Internet privacy truly an oxymoron?

And that’s why the name of the Facebook developer conference “F8” — tell me you don’t see that as “fate” — gives me a shiver. Some may consider such policy changes and the death of Internet privacy inevitable.

2 COMMENTS

  1. The proposed changes are bullshit. All Facebook wants to do is to dump selected advertisers on its users. We already see too much advertising on the web.

  2. Being able to “opt out” is such a cop out. How do I know where I know how far my information has been disseminated? Are there ways to prohibit a third party from giving the information to a fourth party?

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