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Facebook needs to face up to privacy issues

FacebookFacebook, Schmacebook. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has both feet in the air and his head firmly stuck inside yet another dung hill, after Facebook's recent changes to its 'information-sharing' policies.

The heat rising off this issue makes the Beacon controversy of a few years back seem like a gentle bath. This week, some 15 consumer watchdog groups have filed a formal complaint with the FTC over the changes, which allow Facebook to pre-emptively butter your information across the InterWebs.

Helping itself to your data

The Electronic Frontier Foundation's Kurt Opshal takes us on a quick tour of Facebook's eroding privacy protections over the years. It starts at 2005, when "thefacebook.com" would only display your personal information to other members of the groups you belonged to, to this year's all-you-can-eat information buffet, where Facebook prohibits you from making some information private and by default shares your data with third-party websites unless you tell it specifically not to.

"Facebook originally earned its core base of users by offering them simple and powerful controls over their personal information," Opshal writes. "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."

You want to make your Facebook totally private to anyone but your actual friends? You can't, though you can come close. And it will only take you 50 clicks inside Facebook's Wonderland-like labyrinth of privacy controls. Have fun.

Last week brought news of two separate bugs that let websites secretly install their apps on your Facebook profile and let your friends eavesdrop on your private chats. Facebook swatted both bugs relatively promptly, but not before they made their way into the press. I can understand how Facebook missed the chat security hole - you have to follow a fairly arcane series of steps to reproduce it. But calling the secret app problem a "bug" is a bit hard to swallow.

Somehow, in the months of testing data integration with third parties, we're expected to believe nobody at Facebook noticed a few extra apps on their profiles? Please.

A cavalier attitude to privacy?

Neither of these things constitutes the personal data disaster some people have been predicting. But at the very least, they suggest maybe the Facebookers aren't quite as in control of their service as they might want you to believe. A cavalier attitude toward your privacy combined with security glitches is a recipe for disaster.

Little wonder, then, that Facebook is getting publicly spanked, with people like Business Insider's Dan Yoder declaring that they're giving up on Facebook for good.

Facebook has been mostly silent in the face of this backlash, although that may be starting to change. As I write this, the company's vice-president of public policy, Elliot Schrage, is planning to answer questions from readers of the New York Times - although, given that 281 people have weighed in, I suspect that will occupy him throughout much of the summer. Or, more likely, he'll cherry-pick the ones he wants to answer.

Remember this is the same guy who was quoted saying the following:

"Facebook is all about sharing information. Sharing information is, at some level, antithetical to secrecy, antithetical to the idea of privacy."

In the past, the level of user discontent over Facebook's appetite for its users' personal information has risen to the point where Zuckerberg et al have been forced to back down. I don't think it's going to happen this time. I think your choice is going to be Facebook's way or the highway. And I think a lot of Facebook's 400 million users will be choosing the latter.

InfoWorld

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