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How Facebook Betrayed Users and Undermined Online Privacy

Facebook has collected loads of private information about their users -- information that is being sold to marketers.

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While Mark Zuckerberg may believe in a concept called “radical transparency,” Peter Eckersley, senior staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has called for Facebook “to stop acting as if they have a mission to make all of our private lives public.”

Electronic Frontier Foundation is also promoting a Bill of Privacy Rights for Social Network Users, including the right to be clearly informed about the options for privacy, what information is being shared to whom, and notified when any legal entity requests information about them. The bill also declares that users retain control over the use and disclosure of their data, and that they should have the right to have all personal data removed from social network servers if they decide to leave the service.

The Future of Facebook

And leaving the service is what a small but growing number of people have in mind. “ Quit Facebook Day,” an online protest started by Canadian users, took place a few weeks ago—and there may be more. Over 35,000 Facebook users have pledged to permanently erase their profiles from Facebook’s database. They cannot, however, take their data with them. It was only last year that Canada asked Facebook to cease holding on to personal information from deactivated accounts, which is illegal under Canadian law. The changes that Facebook is making to quell the outcry, inadequate as they may seem, are possibly more a result of pressure from foreign governments than anything else. There has been “unusually strong international pressure from policymakers to force Facebook to change,” says Jeffrey Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy.

Will this upset over privacy slow down the meteoric growth of the company? It is interesting that Facebook gained only 320,000 new U.S. users in June after a blockbuster gain in May of more than 7.8 million. And a new report from the American Customer Satisfaction Index ranks Facebook in the bottom 5 percent of social media sites. In the survey, users complained about privacy concerns, interface changes, navigation problems, and aggressive advertising.

Mark Zuckerberg takes it all with a smile and does not seem overly concerned about the ruckus, or the severity of Facebook’s PR debacle. Zuckerberg and Facebook have been the focus of at least two books and are now the subject of a film, The Social Network, directed by David Fincher and based on technology reporter David Kirkpatrick’s account of the Facebook phenomenon. Zuckerberg says he doesn’t read a lot of the press, books or articles about Facebook and does not plan to see the movie. To the great modern prophet of staying connected, being disconnected sometimes is a good thing.

“Over time,” says Zuckerberg, “people will remember us for what we build and how useful it is to them.” Looking at the low number of actual defectors and the onrush of new users, Zuckerberg’s confidence is not misplaced. But, sooner or later, Facebook will have to learn that disclosure of our most personal information should be on an opt-in rather than opt-out basis. As blogger Chris Messina stresses, your identity is too important to be owned by any one company.

In fact, most users of Facebook are hoping that the company will act wisely and in a fashion that demonstrates a respect for user privacy. The challenge is that Facebook is on a firm trajectory of personalizing the web, which by nature requires information from users. At the same time, advertisers have ceased to be interested in buying space on Web sites—and now want to access user profiles. While not exactly locked in, users have invested Facebook with a great deal of data, and they tend not to want to close their accounts. This fact is not lost on Facebook.

 
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