Making sense of Facebook’s “Fixed” Privacy

Even if you don’t read any more of this post, if you use Facebook and haven’t adjusted your Facebook privacy settings since April 2010, please go do so right now – Facebook has made your profile data and photos public for all to see, including law enforcement, corporations and creepers like me. Also, you will be safest if you treat everything you post on Facebook from now on as 100% public, as if it were your personal website or blog.

For weeks, the interwebs have been all a-twitter in anger over Facebook’s recent (as well as endemic) privacy changes. The full history is far too long to discuss here, but suffice it to say that Facebook is drawing heat for changing user data and photo privacy from being “private by default” to being accessible to the entire Web.

I think it’s important to make a distinction about exactly why this a problem. Over the last decade, the Web has become more and more centered on social interactions. The vast majority of this has happened in a totally public context – blogs, Flickr, MySpace, Twitter and many other services have all been public, though some offered the ability for users to take their information private. These services never received such blowback because their users approached all of their posts as public material, and knew how to post accordingly. But Facebook, on the other hand, started out as a 100% private network where only those specifically allowed by the user could access any profile information. But as Facebook grew beyond its initial exclusivity to college students and then to regional networks, the network quietly removed much of the privacy that was its very defining characteristic. (Matt McKeon posted a perfect visual graph depicting the devolution of Facebook privacy over time which helps understand Facebook’s many changes to privacy settings.)

Facebook users can’t be expected to follow the site’s ever-changing privacy defaults and change their personal settings accordingly. While Facebook’s privacy changes are certainly not malicious in intent, they are nevertheless betraying its users’ trust. As a tech professional, I hold myself responsible for everything I post online, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to apply the same standard to every user of a site which has become a central aspect to the social interactions of  so many people. Facebook has a particularly dubious track record when it comes to their user data – check out this gem from an instant messaging conversation with CEO Mark Zuckerberg during the Facebook’s launch:

Zuckerberg: Yeah so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard

Zuckerberg: Just ask.

Zuckerberg: I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS

[Redacted Friend’s Name]: What? How’d you manage that one?

Zuckerberg: People just submitted it.

Zuckerberg: I don’t know why.

Zuckerberg: They “trust me”

Zuckerberg: Dumb fucks.

(credit: Silicon Valley Insider)

And yesterday, the same Zuckerberg announced an upcoming overhaul and simplification of Facebook’s privacy settings for his precious dumb fucks users. It’s a good change for sure, and one that Facebook couldn’t afford not to make while they prepare to go IPO. I am particularly impressed that they’re adding the ability to completely opt out of the third party Facebook Platform. But it doesn’t solve the key issue of much user data being public by default, including their profile information and photos.

New Facebook Privacy Settings
Facebook's upcoming new privacy controls: making it easier for you to lock down the profile that should have been private in the first place.

From here out, Facebook has simply lost my trust. I feel as though they’ve taken my online social interactions hostage for ransom money. I feel like it’s important to have both public and private social networks, and I would definitely trust a responsible company enough to keep my information private. But Facebook? Fat chance. I’m treating everything I post there as if it were open to the whole world to see, and eagerly looking for ways to remove myself from their attempts to own my social interactions. I’m not breaking up with you, Facebook, but it’s pretty safe to say that you’ve changed our relationship status to “It’s complicated.”