Facebook’s Brewing Privacy Nightmare


facebook_small.jpgADOTAS – Google, you always know what I’m thinking! Or perhaps I let you do my thinking for me… Anyhow, ReadWriteWeb discovered that when a user types in the words “how do I” into the Google search box, the fifth entry on the drop down list of suggestions is “how do I delete my Facebook account” (right after “how do I love thee” and “how do I get a passport,” proving that Shakespeare and trying to get the hell out of your country are still more popular).

When I inserted “how do I” on my own Google toolbar, deleting a Facebook account actually came up beneath “how do I breathe lyrics”; as someone who listens to the radio about as often as I lactate, I discovered this was a song by R&B singer Mario, who begs the question “How do I breathe when you’re not by my side?” I suggest listening to the instructions at the beginning of Bush’s “Machinehead.” You know, Liz Phair also had a breathing problem a few years back — must be a lot of asthma in the music industry.

In other words, I wasn’t blown away by the news; however, a chart from Google trends shows the query has been on a steady rise over the last year, and particularly escalating since December 2009 when Facebook did a privacy policy overhaul.

In particular, Facebook is disenfranchising members of the tech media. It’s one thing for the whinging class to use the smallest hiccough as a means to boost pageviews; it’s another when tech writers and mavens start actually deleting their accounts and publicly crowing about it.

BusinessInsider reported that Engadget cofounder Peter Rojas and Matt Cuts, head of Google’s Webspam team, and some financial guru with a sweet coif named Paul Kedrosky all abandoned the Facebook ship, while ReadWriteWeb admitted that two of its staffers are now Facebook-free.

Thing is, it ain’t easy to delete your Facebook account. First, there’s a difference between deactivating and deleting, which makes sense — perhaps you don’t want to lose everything, but you need to take a break from ol’ FB. When you go the deactivation route, Facebook tries to dissuade you, even showing you pictures of friends that will “miss you” (because it’s not like you see these people in real life). However, if you choose to delete, your page can still be reconstituted if you log in within the next two weeks.

Gizmodo — when not fending off Apple’s shock troops — is encouraging users to delete their accounts. Particularly effective are these two charts that compare default data-sharing on the social network in 2005 and 2010.

The New York Times noted that Facebook’s privacy policy contains 5,380 words, which is longer than the U.S. Constitution (sans amendments), a terse 4,543 words. (Of course, it’s nowhere near the size of the U.S. tax code, which is reportedly over a million words and seven times as long as the Bible.) The privacy-related FAQ in Facebook’s help center stretches to 45,000 words.

“To opt out of full disclosure of most information, it is necessary to click through more than 50 privacy buttons, which then require choosing among a total of more than 170 options,” Nick Bilton reports. He also offers this helpful map to managing your privacy settings:

While I usually dismiss stories about the great Facebook exodus — they tend to have a couple of self-righteous hipsters as sources — it would seem Facebook is increasingly alienating users and initiatives such as “Instant Personalization” are being viewed as easy ways to capitalize on user information rather than additions to the user engagement.

Even Facebook’s brass is aware of this as they’ve called an emergency all hands meeting for this afternoon at 4 pm PST. Nick O’Neil of All Facebook prognosticates a temporary suspension of Instant Personalization will be the result.

In a rather contentious Q&A on NYTimes.com with Elliot Schrage, Facebook’s vice president for public policy, the first submission summed up user discontent well:

“Why can’t you leave well enough alone? Why do I have to do a weekly ritual of checking to see what new holes you’ve slashed into the Facebook Security Blanket, so that I have to go and hide or delete yet more stuff? Are Facebook customers really pounding on your door screaming that they want more categories of their personal data to be available to marketers every few months?”

Certainly advertisers and marketers are salivating over the potential promised with all that data, but for users, it’s hard to see Facebook’s initiatives as anything but greedy. It’s certainly not what they signed up for.

Not surprising, Schrage’s response misses the boat, saying that Facebook’s efforts have been wrongly perceived.

“We don’t share your information with advertisers. Our targeting is anonymous. We don’t identify or share names. Period. Think of a magazine selling ads based on the demographics and perceived interests of its readers. We don’t sell the subscriber list.”

And if you don’t like that… Well, unsubscribe! Only it seems more are taking him up on that offer.

Frankly, it doesn’t help that Facebook’s response to user concern has been tone-deaf. This is the awesome site created by a college student to help connect people — well why do communications with users feel increasingly sterile and corporate? Even Twitter seems to keep a sense of humor in its back-and-forth with users.

What happened to the Mark Zuckerberg that handed out business cards that read “I’m CEO… Bitch”? Call it frat-boy behavior, but at least there was levity…

“We want to be trusted partners with our users in helping manage [privacy policy] tensions,” Schrage writes on the Q&A. There’s the t-word again — trust — and “trusted partners”… Sheesh, isn’t that how Facebook describes its relationships with everybody these days? Does the term really mean anything?

With all this controversy, it’s hard not to think of the downfall of MySpace. One of the chief reason the site is dying is because it put advertising revenue ahead of user experience. Certainly Facebook’s approach on the matter has been far different — more nuanced than a barrage of belly-fat ads — but ultimately increasing revenue is playing second fiddle to user satisfaction, even if Facebook argues it’s just not doing a good job of communicating policy changes.

We in the advertising industry may lament not being able to reach Facebook user data, but unhappy (and disappearing) users will not good targeting make.

The next question is how will users receive location-based status updates that effectively allow users to check in like on Foursqaure? As noted by current players in the location-based mobile network space, the privacy issues will be monumental.

“I hope Facebook treads carefully,” said Lawrence Coburn, CEO of DoubleDutch, at last Friday’s Mobile Battle. Facebook’s brewing privacy nightmare would suggest the company is marching forward wearing lead boots.


  1. All I can say is, “about time!”

    Facebook has been a disaster waiting to happen. Bad model, bad design, hidden agendas, clumsy, irrelevant, sneaky (automatically connects contacts from gmail, yahoo etc in a sneaky way for those who don’t know how it works), overly complex (think trying to get your newly purchased laptop MS Office validation key), trying to be all things to all people, data mining when it says it isn’t, thinking ‘it’ has the power to influence when it can disappear in a flash, borish, time-intensive, unmanageable……need I go on?

    Never had one (FB Page), never will. Told all my colleagues that it will waste their time and now they are leaving in droves.

    Who cares? So what? Flash in the pan.


  2. FB has changed many people’s lives. Thumbs up for everything about this webbased application. Thumbs down for their greed which will be their eventual downfall… like all things that involve money and people…
    I have connected with long lost friends sooner than later (or which could maybe have been never). That gift alone is more than I can thank them for. The data that I choose to load on the site is mine for public display. If the privacy settings become an issue… it should be seen as a luxury rather than right. those who log on to FB, load and publish…. for the www – There has been more good that came from this than bad.

    If you post something on the internet then complain because the www can see it… duhhhhh?!

    propaganda is what comes to mind when I see articles about questioning privacy on public pages. Facebook = public display. Its up to you.


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