Posts Tagged ‘privacy’

Facebook’s Eroding Privacy Policy, Visualized

Much has been said about Facebook’s new personalization features, the growing privacy concerns of its users – and the social network’s apparent oblivion to them.

I came across an interesting post by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital rights advocacy group, which highlighted excerpts of Facebook’s privacy policy over five years to “illustrate Facebook’s shift away from privacy.”

Curious, I created word clouds of Facebook’s 2005 policy excerpt and its current version.

Facebook Privacy Policy (2005): Facebook Privacy Policy (2010):

The contrast is stark.

As Kurt Opsahl, Senior Staff Attorney with EFF, puts it:

“Facebook originally earned its core base of users by offering them simple and powerful controls over their personal information. As Facebook grew larger and became more important, it could have chosen to maintain or improve those controls. Instead, it’s slowly but surely helped itself — and its advertising and business partners — to more and more of its users’ information, while limiting the users’ options to control their own information.”

Privacy pullback

When users are left with little or no control over their personal data — and settings go from “user specified” to “everyone,” members are bound to feel betrayed.

Facebook’s repeated bait and switch tactics have left thousands outraged. The latest changes have even sparked Congressional objections with Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Mark Begich (D-AK), and Al Franken (D-MN) writing a letter to Mark Zuckerberg, asking Facebook to “stand by its goal of creating open and transparent communities by working to ensure that its policies protect the sensitive personal biographical data of its users and provide them with full control over their personal information.”

Will the social network comply or has Facebook really turned evil?

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Who controls my information?

If there was ever any doubt about whether the social web should have its own Bill of Rights, the recent Facebook fiasco certainly took care of that. After being harshly criticized for slipping in changes to their original Terms of Service, Facebook finally gave in (for now) and has reverted to its original terms.

Here’s what happened soon after Facebook altered their Terms of Service:

  • Public uproar grew and the blogosphere was abuzz with users lashing out against the loss of control over their personal information.
  • More than 73,000 people joined the group “People against the new terms of service,” which, along with several other user groups on Facebook, protested the new change.
  • The Electronic Privacy Information Center was set to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission about Facebook’s Terms of Service, according to PC World.

Taken aback with the online rebellion, Facebook – in an effort to dispel concerns about who owns user data –  did an about turn and reverted to its original Terms of Service late Tuesday, stating that it would come back with a “substantial revision.”

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Facebook‘s CEO Mark Zuckerberg also said that this time around, “Facebook users will have a lot of input in crafting these terms.” The company also set up a group for its “Bill Of Rights,” where people will be able to provide feedback on the Terms of Service changes. While this may (temporarily) give back users their sense of control, Facebook needs to be more transparent about privacy and ownership.

It’s interesting to note that these issues of privacy, control and freedom were addressed in the Bill of Rights for the social web, created by Joseph Smarr, Marc Canter, Robert Scoble, and Michael Arrington two years ago. The document asserts that users of the social web are entitled to certain fundamental rights:

  • Ownership of their own personal information
  • Control of whether and how such personal information is shared with others
  • Freedom to grant persistent access to their personal information to trusted external sites

While a universally accepted Bill of Rights sounds good in theory, putting it in practice is still a long shot. However, we are now seeing variations of it slowly being put into practice.

For me, the recent debacle proved two things:

  1. The power of the community. This, according to Clay Shirky, is what happens  “when people are given the tools to do things together, without needing traditional organizational structures.”
  2. There is no question that, now more than ever,  people are aware of their privacy and digital rights – and will not hesitate to demand those rights. The Bill of Rights may not be the solution but it definitely is a step in the right direction.

So, while it may be a little early to celebrate Facebook’s reversal to its original Terms of Service, we can be sure that should Facebook, or any social network, decide to abuse its user’s content, the community will be quick to bring them to task.

Like Michael Dortch, an independent IT analyst says: “While Facebook has the right to publish its users’ private information, you can bet that any hopes of remaining a viable business would disappear within minutes to hours after the company decided to do so without the permission of those users.”

That’s right. The people are watching. And they are not afraid to speak.

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