Facebook’s Privacy Mistakes

The point of this post: The real problem with Facebook’s privacy practices is the failure to manage and live up to expectations.

Let me preface this by saying “I am not a privacy professional.” My government has privacy professionals. They’re good people, know the legislation far better than I do and think more and deeper on these subjects. This is just my personal perspective. So, for what it’s worth…

There has been a lot of press recently about changes that Facebook is making to it’s privacy settings. It was certainly quite the topic in a number of sessions at Mesh 2010. A number of people I know who are quite active in the social media space talking about leaving Facebook and deleting their account. In fact, recently a couple of Canadians organized a “Quit Facebook Day on Twitter and over 30,000 people pledged to delete their accounts. I know, it’s a drop in the bucket for Facebook, with its hundreds of millions of users, but it still shows some unhappiness out there.

The Facebook Privacy Concerns

The concerns that people have expressed about the changes* seem to boil down to:

  1. I don’t like this concept of “open by default”. Things should be private by default and only open when I actively open them!
  2. Some information that I used to be able to keep private, I no longer can (profile picture, home town, network and possibly pages, education and interests);
  3. Facebook privacy setting are so complex and difficult to understand, with lots of pages to navigate. It is almost like they don’t want me to be able to figure them out and hide things. There should be a simple, one page form that allows me to choose my provacy settings.

I am as concerned about the privacy issues with Facebook as the next guy (more concerned, likely, since most people are oblivious) but some of those don’t hold a lot of water for me. My chief concerns are different and are ones I don’t hear about so often. But before I get into what my concerns are let’s tackle the ones above.

1. Facebook shouldn’t be “open by default”.

Guess what – the Internet is open by default. Fundamental in being a part of the Internet is sharing your content with the rest of the world. That’s what distinguished it from the other closed networks that were around when it started and gave it a competitive advantage. That’s what continues to distinguish it from intranets and extranets. It’s the ability to freely access and link to everything that makes it the valuable tool it is.

And if “open by default” were such a problem, Twitter wouldn’t be the success story it is. Sure, you can lock down your Twitter posts (“tweets”) and have them visible only to those followers you approve. But Twitter is open by default and it doesn’t seem to be getting a lot of flack for it.

I certainly think that the way Facebook has gone about opening things up has caused significant problems. But I don’t think the “open by default” philosophy is at the root of them.

2. I can’t make private what I want to.

Here, I have mixed feelings. From the first group (profile picture, home town) I understand where facebook is coming from. I’ve been in the position of trying to track down old school or university friends I’ve lost touch with. If they’ve got anything approaching a common name, it can be a crazy proposition. I don’t how many people I’ve messaged with “Are you the Kevin Watson who went to…” or “Are you the John Stubbs who went to…”. And if you are concerned about your privacy, it is really easy to leave them out. After all, your friends know what you look like and where you live. (Or you could put up some other photo for your profile picture. Plenty of people do.) I’m not so sure about the network, though. It seems innocuous, but if you use it, you can’t just leave it out to protect your privacy without losing some functionality.

The second group (pages, education and interests) is much more serious. And I have to admit that, after initially going through the privacy settings, I deleted all of these. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to share all of that with everyone. However, if you look really carefully there is a way to adjust your settings so that these can be kept more private. For these, the issue isn’t that you can’t make them private, just that it is really difficult to figure out how. Which brings us to…

3. The Facebook privacy settings are too laborious and complex. They need to be simplified.

I can certainly see the point to this. As I mention above, the privacy controls for education, interests and pages are devilishly difficult to find. But I’m a bit concerned that they’ll simplify by removing options. I think the finer the grain on our privacy controls, the better. I think it is better to be able to say, not only “This is limited to Friends” but “This is limited to this particular group of Friends (my drinking buddies, not my work friends).” Similarly, rather than applying athe same setting to “all status updates” we should be able to make different updates visible to different people.

So, while I agree that the privacy settings need to be made easier to use, I remain concerned that doing so will be an excuse to narrow our options. I think a good user experience designer could make the fine detailed privacy choices available in an easy-to-use manner, if that’s the task their given. But if the task their given in simplifying is to ensure we share more, that’ll lead to a different result.

But I said I have my own concerns. What are they? I don’t think that Facebook has followed the

Two Cardinal Rules of Social Network Privacy

1. Set User Expectations and Live Up to Them.

If Facebook had been open and clear from the beginning about their policy that everyone should be sharing and that was going to be the default, I don’t think there would have been any backlash from the public when that’s what they implemented. People are used to that on the Internet, after all. The problem was that Facebook wasn’t marketed as a place to share with the world. It was marketed as a place to share with your friends. That was built in the design as a walled garden, into the nature of the activity feeds, into a hundred small design decisions.

Once they set up the expectation that Facebook was about sharing between friends, they get into trouble for switching mid-stream and failing to live up to expectations.

2. Changes should never reduce existing privacy settings without informing the user. The privacy of existing content should never be reduced without explicit advance consent.

These are really specific cases of the Number One Rule, but are important enough to merit their own rule.

People have a right to know when they create content, who will be able to see it. That means that if you are changing the settings for status updates (for example) from “Friends only” to “Everyone”, users should know about the change before typing in their next status update. While Facebook followed this rule in many places, they failed with regards to things like Pages. I could have continued to associate myself with new Pages, never realizing that these associations would be viewable to all.

Even more critical, I shouldn’t be checking in to find that the associations that I thought were private no longer are. There can (and have been) huge personal impacts when these changes are applied to existing content without the knowledge and approval of the user. If someone is working for a homophobic employer (they shouldn’t exist, but they do) who find out about an employee’s sexual preference through Facebook privacy changes, that could have a devastating effect on his or her employment. Marriages have ended as a result of Facebook privacy changes.

Facebook has failed to follow both of these cardinal rules.

How should Facebook have done it?

Before making any changes, launch and run a marketing campaign to reset user expectation of the brand and service. Perhaps something with a theme “Facebook: not just connecting with old friends but finding new ones” or “Facebook: Your face to the world”. We heard about Facebook’s new philosophy from CEO Zuckerberg’s interviews after the fuss (those who follow the story). We needed something more proactive and less reactive to avoid the fuss.

After Facebook had reset expectations, the time would have been ripe to revamp the privacy settings. But it shouldn’t have been done until the users explicitly accepted them. I’m picturing a box that appears on the front page that says something like “In order to better connect with old friends and new ones, we’ve revised our default privacy settings. Click here for more information on the changes. Click here to accept the new defaults and connect with more friends. Click here to retain your current settings.”

If they had done that, I think the fuss would have been a lot less.

* There has also been a lot of concern, especially from the Privacy Commissioner, about the sharing of personal information with 3rd party application developers. Since that isn’t new, I’m not discussiing it here.

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