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Facebook Still Get Privacy Wrong

Photography: suesviews

It might be hard to believe now but when Facebook began, the settings were so restrictive that unless you were a university student you couldn’t even join the site. You could see the names of the elite who could join the site. You might be able to look at their avatars if they’d posted them, but even for other members, almost everything else was kept private. Private was the default setting. Members of the network could see where friends were studying, where they’d worked and what they liked to do, but everyone else was locked out.

Those were the days.

As Facebook has grown so has its troubles with privacy issues. The site now has over 400 million active users, a community that’s about a third larger than the population of the United States. Those people interact with more 25 billion pieces of content, from Web links and news stories to notes and photo albums. They post status updates that keep friends and family informed about what they’re doing, upload pictures and videos that reveal private aspects of their lives, and they use over half a million Facebook apps that often draw on the information they’ve posted.

Fundamental Privacy Mistakes

It’s a huge amount of material that’s both essential to Facebook’s value to advertisers and a giant headache to Mark Zuckerberg, its 26-year-old CEO. You can almost forgive him for making the mistake of offering privacy settings that assumed users wanted everything open but which were also too complex to be changed easily.

Almost, but not quite. Facebook’s mistakes were fundamental, an example of what to do to get privacy completely wrong. The only consolation that Steve Zuckerberg can draw from his failure is that Google made exactly the same mistakes when it launched Buzz. The search company attempted to start with critical mass by attaching itself to users’ Gmail accounts, exposing the email addresses of account holder’s contacts in the process.

Facebook, at least, didn’t do that kind of damage but both companies made the same error. They both assumed that because no one ever reads the privacy policies at the bottom of Web pages, no one ever looks at the EULAs on downloaded programs before they agree to them, and few people in practice ever say anything that could land them in serious trouble with a third party app developer, no one would mind if the default setting was maximum exposure. After all whoever was accessing the information — whether it was an old friend, a new retailer or an exciting app — was only acting in a way that would benefit the user. Privacy is a flexible thing these days and besides, those people who really are paranoid fussy cautious about what happens with their private information could always head to the settings page and change them.

On Facebook that meant playing with a host of different “granular” settings relating to a range of the site’s different functions. For Buzz it looked like it meant clicking a link to turn the system off, but it turned out that just meant you couldn’t see it. To get rid of Buzz altogether, users initially had to leap through one digital hoop after another, hoops they weren’t even aware existed.

Ask First, Share Later

The problem with those mistakes wasn’t that they actually revealed vast amounts of personal data that individuals needed to keep private (although a few unlucky individuals were affected). It made the public aware that they had personal information, and worse, that big companies were interested in it. Website users don’t read privacy policies because they don’t care about their privacy; they just don’t believe that their private concerns are of any interest to anyone else. Until a company comes along and helps itself to their personal data.

So what can companies hoping to amass vast amounts of user data learn from the mistakes of other corporate giants? How can they balance their need to please advertisers and app developers with the concerns of their members?

The simplest strategy is to ask first.

Email marketers aren’t fond of double-opt in requirements because it means they can’t be accused of spamming. They like them because so few people object when they’re asked. For much personal data the response is likely to be similar although much depends on the kind of information being requested (anonymous demographic is unlikely to raise many objections; private purchases might do.) It’s when companies take information without asking that users object and become suspicious.

It’s also important to make the privacy settings simple. As Mark Zuckerberg himself put it in his blog:

The number one thing we’ve heard is that there just needs to be a simpler way to control your information. We’ve always offered a lot of controls, but if you find them too hard to use then you won’t feel like you have control. Unless you feel in control, then you won’t be comfortable sharing and our service will be less useful for you. We agree we need to improve this.

But the most important thing you can do with privacy is to understand users’ concerns. When Google changed the way it offered Buzz, it went a long way towards showing that it understood those concerns. Leaving it in Gmail however, a place that users think of as a personal space, suggested that the company still isn’t standing with its users. Similarly, Facebook’s simpler privacy settings hand more control to its users, but its recommendation

that you share basic info like status updates and posts with everyone, content like photos and videos of you with friends of your friends, and sensitive items like contact information with only your real friends.

also suggests that it’s still not quite getting it. Many users would consider status updates to be as personal as their pictures.

Facebook got privacy right the first time when it assumed that users wanted to talk only with their friends. The way its mishandled privacy may well end up prompting users to choose to bring those old days back.


  1. Brad Says:

    Great article, as always! The reason I'm commenting, though, is because you twice mentioned the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, as "Steve Zuckerberg." Just thought you might like to know.

  2. Tom Says:

    Consider this brief and fun video to help you navigate Facebook's privacy settings. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pP9IpGS6Uy4

  3. John Dupont Says:

    I joined facebook when it first started and the privacy was nice and easy. Now it takes 15-20 minutes to block out all the crap you don't want and now i learned that there is a lot of vital things that are public and i can't change it!!!
    Anyways i tired of faceads and went looking for better sites. I joined a few, but the one i am really liking is AutumnsList. It has a ton of stuff like facebook like games, groups, photos, etc, but it also has a nice classifieds section. When you post a classified ad it also posts to your wall for all your friends to see 🙂
    Also they have nice easy privacy settings, that i like and now am hooked.
    If your looking for a great alternative to the old facebook, then come join me at http://www.autumnslist.com
    do a search for john dupont and friend me.

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