Guest Post: Facebook’s Privacy Problem

facebookprivacy.jpgI’m taking the day off. I think I deserve it.

So, after the jump, we have a guest post from Angelita Williams. Angelita writes on the topics of online courses. She welcomes your comments at

(BTW – If any of you lovely readers are interested in guest posting here at the ol’ Handbook, email me).

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Multiple news outlets recently confirmed the FTC’s findings against social media giant Facebook in a settlement regarding the company’s misuse of its users’ personal information. In the settlement, the FTC shows that Facebook had been deceptive in the way that they treated the information produced by their 800 million plus users who create new (and personal) content daily. Facebook’s privacy policies have always been considered murky, and the FTC’s report proves that the company often used that murkiness to their advantage.

The evidence is fairly damning for the social networking company. Facebook’s stance on privacy has been anything but transparent, but they continually told users that their information was secure and private. Those claims of privacy are certainly at odds with the FTC’s findings. Among other unflattering allegations, the FTC states that Facebook sent personal user information to advertisers and third-party applications for their use, despite claiming otherwise to their users. The FTC also claimed that even after users deactivated their Facebook profile, their information could still be accessed by Facebook and advertisers for their use. By making the distinction between shareable and non-shared information so fine, Facebook seemed to engineer a successful means by which people accidentally shared information to be used in the company’s favor.

Facebook’s privacy embroglio raises the ongoing question of online privacy: how can billions of people expect to upload sensitive and personal information to the largely unregulated space that is the web without falling prey to some sort of exposure? To the FTC, the solution against future privacy transgressions rests in auditing entities meant to ensure that web services don’t overstep their bounds. In the case of Facebook, the company’s privacy policies will be subject to scrutiny from an independent auditing service for at least the next 20 years.

But the FTC’s case with Facebook stands in stark contrast to other perceptions of user privacy online. Web privacy is either a shrinking commodity or an illusion altogether, depending on who you ask. As recently as November, for instance, a federal court ruled that information shared on Twitter shouldn’t be considered private information and thus could be subject to use by government officials. In other words, the ruling meant that no one should be surprised that information posted on the social network is fair game for any public viewing. It’s an interesting case to juxtapose with the Facebook settlement, because both center on the matter of user privacy. Both Facebook and Twitter include privacy settings that the users can utilize as they see fit to secure their information, and yet public use of information on Twitter is condoned while such actions with Facebook user information is virulently denounced.

It seems that the real issue isn’t online privacy–if you put questionable content on the web, don’t be surprised if it comes back to haunt you in one form or another. I think it’s more a matter of the transparency with which social media services approach privacy that matters. Facebook wouldn’t be in the mess they’re in now if they would have been upfront about their privacy settings in the first place. They marketed their service to users as a social space with an iron-clad privacy policy when they were really sharing information daily. On the other hand, services like Twitter are almost run like a public forum, where no one expects a controversial tweet to go unnoticed by the general public (just refer to any Tweet-related news headline in the past year if you don’t know what I mean).

Now Facebook will be paying for their lack of transparency by being subject so special scrutiny for at least the next two decades. In your opinion, should this kind of privacy regulation be implemented across a wider spectrum of web services? Or should web users be resigned to the notion that all information on the web could be made public?

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