In a shocking development Facebook has yet again stripped away the last veil of privacy from its hundreds of millions of users by exposing their interest in controversial topics, religious affiliation and vampire tendencies to the scrutiny of marketers, potential employers and anyone else who cares to take an interest.
That, at least, would be the impression anyone gained on reading the recent press release from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, ‘Facebook Further Reduces Your Control Over Personal Information‘ [see http://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2010/04/facebook-further-reduces-control-over-personal-information], which says that Facebook has ‘removed its users’ ability to control who can see their own interests and personal information. Certain parts of users’ profiles, ‘including your current city, hometown, education and work, and likes and interests” will now be transformed into “connections,” meaning that they will be shared publicly’, and goes on to note that ‘if you don’t want these parts of your profile to be made public, your only option is to delete them’.
The release complains that this will expose all sorts of information, and worries that turning the list of interests entered in a profile into separate pages with which users are associated will ‘create public lists for controversial issues, such as an interest in abortion rights, gay marriage, marijuana, tea parties and so on.’
Leaving aside the assumption that nobody would want to be publicly associated with a controversial topic, because apparently confessing to political interests is as embarrassing as talking about how you like to squeeze spots onto a mirror, the major problem with the EFF piece is that it completely overstates what Facebook is doing and presents it in the worst possible light.
Go to the Facebook release announcing the change at http://blog.facebook.com/blog.php?post=382978412130 and it says quite clearly that the new service is opt-in from the start and that you can disable either the entire feature or just choose which ‘connections’ you want to be part of:
Opt-in to new connections: When you next visit your profile page on Facebook, you’ll see a box appear that recommends Pages based on the interests and affiliations you’d previously added to your profile. You can then either connect to all these Pages—by clicking “Link All to My Profile”—or choose specific Pages. You can opt to only connect to some of those Pages by going to “Choose Pages Individually” and checking or unchecking specific Pages. Once you make your choice, any text you’d previously had for the current city, hometown, education and work, and likes and interests sections of your profile will be replaced by links to these Pages. If you would still like to express yourself with free-form text, you can still use the “Bio” section of your profile. You also can also use features and applications like Notes, status updates or Photos to share more about yourself.
Yes, this service will be useful to marketers and those trying to advertise, but it might also be useful for those of us with interests in obscure topics as it could help us hook up with the dozen other people around the world who really care about the ongoing career of former Clash drummer Terry Chimes. Yes, it changes the way Profiles work and will force people to present their data in a different way, moving some information from the interests section to the bio section. But whatever it is, it is not a privacy disaster and does not merit the scare-mongering headline on the EFF pronouncement.
The danger of this sort of overstatement is that it makes it much harder to draw attention to the real mistakes, like the default settings for Google Buzz when it launched, or Facebook’s Beacon advertising programme. Arguing that the sky is falling in every time there’s a new service or a change to privacy options doesn’t help at all, and the EFF and other campaigning organisations should realise this. Getting people to care about how these services offer and appreciate the importance of default settings and how what danah boyd calls ‘personally embarrassing information’ can be exposed is a long and slow process, and it is undermined by this sort of misleading over-reaction. Much as I admire EFF and their work, this was sloppy and needs to be fixed.