Facebook easing up privacy issues: just a diversion

Facebook easing up privacy issues: just a diversion

25th May 2010

“Privacy”, people seem to have always been concerned with the matter. The fact that people had to give up their privacy during different wars and especially during the second world war (and even more the period after that where the communism allowed almost no privacy) probably plays a big role in the restraint people have on the matter.

With the ever growing web the privacy questions grow. And as you can expect the ‘big boys’ are the first to be running into the issues concerning privacy. Google has been under fire before in the last couple of years, mostly in Europe with their Streetview products, with Google Buzz and data storage, but Facebook now has the bigger mountain to climb. Their recent changes have set off the media and even politicians to question what is right or wrong when it comes to online privacy. Facebook now seems to be taking a few steps back admitting their privacy changes ‘missed the mark’.

Are they going from evil to good now? Or is it just a smart diversion?

Facebook privacy has been a much discussed topic over the past few years. Where Google has been consistently been talked about since 2004 Facebook really came under the radar early last year. Then after again some big discussion at the end of last year Facebook and the beginning of 2010 when Zuckerberg announced that “the age of privacy was over”, now has opened up the discussion entirely again with their efforts to “open up the web”. In opening up the web they however forgot to look at the privacy matters. It created another discussion where at a point it even seemed as if 60% of the Facebook users would be walking away.

A quick look at Google Insights shows the increase in talks about Facebook Privacy compared to Google Privacy.

Who cares or who knows?

I saw an article this week from Mark Cuban proclaiming that the privacy discussion is actually only being held amongst those working with the web on a day to day basis, which means me and probably most of the readers of State of Search. In fact the complaints about Facebook are “pretty much a joke” he says. Nobody cares. If you open up your Facebook account you implicitly give up your privacy wish, after all, you are the one who starts sharing personal information.

In a way he is right off course. People just start sharing and if you don’t want personal information to be out there you shouldn’t be putting it on the web in the first place. Right?

Cuban however misses quite a few points here. I was talking to someone outside of the online industry the other day and it immediately became obvious he didn’t know anything about the privacy issues Facebook is running into. Cuban seemed right, my interlocutor didn’t care about the privacy issues.

But when the talk progressed it became clear that it wasn’t that he didn’t care, he just didn’t know. He had no idea what information was shared and where his information could be turning up. As far as he was concerned it didn’t go any further than his friends. After all, that was the reason he became friends with people on Facebook, to share his thoughts with them, not with the rest of the world. He was convinced he was just sharing his information with his ‘friends’ not with the entire world.

Here in lies the problem: Facebook can do all sorts of things with the data they collect. They can use it to optimize your experience, give it away or sell it. And the user doesn’t know. Yes, he can opt out of this. The New York Times recently showed an impressive chart on how difficult it is to control your privacy settings in Facebook. Many just didn’t understand how they could prevent their content to be all around the web.

Is Zuckerberg saving the day and changing this?

This Monday Facebook seemed to show that they are handling the problems. “We have heard the feedback” Zuckerberg says in an article on the Washington Post. In the article it seems as if he takes a humble position:

“We have heard the feedback. There needs to be a simpler way to control your information. In the coming weeks, we will add privacy controls that are much simpler to use. We will also give you an easy way to turn off all third-party services. We are working hard to make these changes available as soon as possible. We hope you’ll be pleased with the result of our work and, as always, we’ll be eager to get your feedback.”

Has Facebook been listening? Is this what we want? Yes, partially. As Dave Naylor said on Strikepoint yesterday: they couldn’t have made it more difficult. So it is a step in the right direction. Handling the privacy settings is a good step. Still it only feels like they are doing this because of the media attention and the threat that many might be leaving Facebook next week.

It’s a diversion!

But its takes the attention away from the real issue: people don’t know what can possibly happen to their data. And that’s where I think Facebook (and Google for that matter) should focus on. Educate those using the service. If you login to Facebook for the very first time you will need to get a warning saying ‘this is what we are going to do with your data’. Then people should be able to opt in, not opt out so they will be making a conscious choice to share their data to the world.

If you do this than you can really say its the users choice what they share with the world and what can be shared about you by others.

PS: And by the way: if Mark Zuckerberg himself is hardly using Facebook (4 updates this year) why should we?


Written By
Bas van den Beld is an award winning Digital Marketing consultant, trainer and speaker. He is the founder of State of Digital and helps companies develop solid marketing strategies.
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