Facebook Privacy – A deliberate deception?

Over the last few months the number of people who have been complaining about Facebook’s privacy policy have been rising.  What are they complaining about? – the fact that slowly the default Facebook privacy options are being made more and more open so that, unless you take specific action, more and more of what you write and exchange on Facebook is available to anyone on the internet.  There is a great site by Matt Mckeon which illustrates this change and how the pace of change (of default openness) is growing.

First of all is this an issue?  I would contend it is, and a very big one at that.  If I came to the Facebook site knowing that everything was open I would use it differently than if I came to the site knowing everything was private – where in this case private means shared only with those I choose, i.e. my friends.  What has happened is that the default privacy settings have been changed and many people don’t realise this.  What was once private is now open.  This is like you buying a mobile phone for private conversations, only to find a year later that your phone company is making all your calls available to the whole world – not good I would suggest!

Maybe you think its obvious that if you don’t change your privacy settings what you post will be public?  Well clearly this is not well known – if you’re in doubt have a look at this site – do you think people really wanted their DNA test discussions open to the world?

If I go back six months I thought the Facebook privacy issue was about education.  Facebook has privacy settings which anyone can use to restrict the openness of their information so surely it was only a matter of educating people to use them?  However, now I am not so sure – not only have I been caught out once or twice with privacy changes imposed by Facebook, I now think that Facebook have made it very hard to manage even for the IT literate and that this is directly opposite to the rest of the site.

Why has Facebook got 450M+ users – not only because it provides useful features that many of us want, but also because it is easy to use – so easy that one really doesn’t need much computer expertise at all.  But the privacy settings? – they are complex and difficult to use.  This is stretching my belief system too far – I can only conclude that Facebook have deliberately made it difficult and confusing.  They have the expertise to make them easy as the rest of the site shows.  At the end of the day how difficult would it be to have a single override box – “only share my stuff with my Friends”?  I am forced to conclude that Facebook are deliberately making it hard so that they can benefit from the disclosure of their users data (and benefit they do – massively).  I am therefore, albeit reluctantly, only able to conclude that Facebook are operating unethically – saying one thing and doing another.

It is a big step to go from the thought that all that is needed is some awareness to the statement that Facebook are operating unethically; however, there seems no other conclusion that can be reached.  There are clearly many others who think the same as the recent Facebook Suicide campaign for 31st May attest to.  The question is, are those complaining only a drop in the ocean or are they sufficient for Facebook to have to do something about it? – I await Facebook’s future communications with interest.  I am skeptical and think they will probably try some further obfuscation, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt for a little while.

But is Facebook really any different from Google and other web sites which hold your personal data and/or haven’t we all changed, so as Mark Zuckerberg says, the default is social (which in his mind means 100% open)?  Let me take the last point first – the default for humans is indeed social, we like to interact with other people, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not private nor does it mean we want everybody to know everything about us.  The internet has not changed this any more than it changed basic business fundamentals of profit/loss (as people seemed to believe in the millennium internet bubble).  I do like to share my status and pictures with my friends, but not with the world.  I share different things with different groups of friends and acquaintances – deeper with my family, some other stuff with close friends, different again with my sports mates, with work colleagues, with those I drink with in the pub, etc.  I may share a lot, but that doesn’t make me 100% open and nor does it make me not care about privacy – I am a very private person too.  The bottom line is I choose what to share with whom – and I don’t want my choices overruled by someone else and especially not without my knowing.  That’s why we tend to get cross when friends betray our confidences.

Haven’t we all got a little more relaxed though in reality over the last decade?  Well yes to an extent I suppose we have.  In the era of big databases, we have got relaxed about our local supermarket recording everything we buy and our credit card company knowing our spending patterns.  They have an enormous amount of data on us and could probably tell us more about ourselves than we would really want to know – but they don’t.  More importantly, they don’t tell anyone else about that data except in big dataset terms – meaning they look for patterns amongst many people, and not the one.  Sure they use that knowledge of ourselves to target us with specific offers and adverts, but no one individual is looking at my data saying, “ah ha he buys too much of this” or whatever.  We’ve become comfortable with this data acquisition and use because it provides a benefit for us and no harm (provided data protection rules are followed) – it is a second level of privacy if you like.  Google with the data they collect from us are similar (apart from their Buzz debacle) , as are Apple with their iTunes library feature on which the Genius function is based, and so on.  The companies make more money by collecting this data on us, but we benefit to.

So why is Facebook different? – because they have an AND in their model.  They collect and use all the data we enter on their site and use it to make money by selling targeted adverts, games, etc – this is fair and reasonable because we get a free service and they have to make money somehow.  So what is the AND?  The AND is they do what the others do AND they share out data with the world because this gives them even more revenue streams.  It is this AND which they have got wrong – they are forcing it to happen instead of us allowing it to happen in a knowledgeable manner.  They are not only forcing it to happen, but I contend doing so in an underhand way, because I suspect they know we their users would not agree en masse if we all understood what they were doing.  It is this underhand deliberate forced disclosure which makes me believe they are being fundamentally unethical.

I would welcome your comments on this issue, for example am I right?  Are Facebook being unethical or have they inadvertently misunderstood the mood of their users?  Please do take the time to express your opinions below.

(I talked about this subject yesterday on the BBC Radio 4 programme “Today” )

Open disclosure: iBundle, the team behind SocialSafe, are launching a new product, DAD (www.dadapp.com), in late June which will have a private, secure sharing feature that can be used as an alternative to Facebook.  This product has been in production since early 2009 and is not the reason for this post – though the thoughts that led to the creation of DAD are apparent above.