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Has Facebook Privacy Become an Oxymoron?

December 11th, 2009

If you logged on to Facebook yesterday, you were one of the 350 million members who immediately saw a pop-up in your newsfeed entitled “Privacy Announcement.”  The announcement told users “We’re making some changes to give you more control of your information and help you stay connected.  We’ve simplified the Privacy page and added the ability to set privacy on everything you share…at the same time, we’re helping everyone find and connect with each other by keeping some information-like your name and profile picture-publicly available.”

Hmm.  So you can control privacy on everything you share, but no matter what you do, your profile picture and name will be available?  That does seem to make much sense now, does it?

Let’s look into these privacy settings a little further, and check out the reason for the new settings.

Facebook is giving members new privacy options, and in particular, will now allow people to choose custom privacy settings for each piece of content they post to the service.  Facebook says they are doing this to empower users and give them as much control as possible over their data.  But many people believe that Facebook has other motives for the changes.

First, the changes could help Facebook compete rivals such as Google and Twitter by providing more information about people and what they are doing in real time.  Second, some of Facebook’s old privacy distinctions were no longer working and the new settings will eliminate these options.  For example, an old setting allowed users to share info with other members of their city or region but as membership in those areas had grown into the millions, this was no longer  useful.  With the new privacy settings, regional categories are no longer an option.

Many speculate that these new privacy settings are actually pushing users to make more of their information public than private, an idea that is causing grumbling and even petitioning by users.  Under the new settings, people can choose to share content with their friends, friends of friends, or everyone, and they can select these various options for all the components of their Facebook profile.  Every time they post a piece of content, clicking on the image of a lock also allows them to choose who they want to share it with.   However, to strengthen privacy settings in most cases, users must click to an extra page with more detailed privacy settings, making it a more lengthy process than ever before to protect your information.  Some users may just not go to the trouble .  What’s more, users are finding that settings they had changed years ago have now been changed back by Facebook to share more of their personal information with the world.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet civil liberties organization, is up in arms about the changes, saying that members could inadvertently publish to the world more information about themselves than they ever intended.

So how do we make sense of all this?  The privacy restrictions seem to be a mixed bag of tighter controls on what you personally post and share, and more relaxed rules on what Facebook deems “public information.”   Perhaps the rules give us all a note of caution.  Social networking is an incredible tool for connectivity and communication, yet it is increasingly making all of our personal information more readily available and accessible. Facebook users and all social networking users should now, more than ever, think harder about what information they choose to share.

Posted Under: Digital & Social Media
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