The Internet is all aflutter once again about the online social networking service Facebook and its privacy settings. I'm no fan of how Facebook seems to change everything just when you finally figured out the last set of changes, but frankly, too many people are complaining for no good reason.
Some Facebook privacy issues have been worthy of criticism. Late last year when the first major changes to its privacy settings went into effect, there was a fatal flaw: Even when users had their friend lists hidden, they could still be seen. That problem was fixed in short order.
Another problem was that users quickly agreed to new privacy settings without carefully looking at them. Many were unaware that they were making a ton of data public by default. Oops to Facebook for allowing this to happen. The default should have been all private to protect careless users. And oops to the Facebook users who didn't read before they clicked.
Don't Get Alarmed
While I'm not a huge fan of some of Facebook's current privacy options, there's really nothing to be all that alarmed about. I've decided to just accept the Facebook hand I've been dealt and not participate in things that don't have privacy options to my liking.
The anti-Facebook crowd's first false argument is that the new privacy options are very complicated. The New York Timescalls them "bewildering." That seems to be based mostly on the fact that there are a ton of options: You can choose your preferred level of privacy for a bunch of different bits on information in your Facebook account.
What's so bad about that? A user might not have a problem with everyone seeing his or her workplace, but doesn't want people to see his or her email address. I actually give Facebook credit in this regard. Thanks for letting me choose! I guarantee you that if things were "less complicated," with one, big, all-or-nothing privacy option for a whole slew of data fields on your profile, the naysayers would then be complaining over the lack of control.
Too Many Choices?
Here at DailyFinance, Sam Gustin is peeved at Facebook for having so darn many choices regarding privacy. He's so mad that he quit Facebook (and his story includes a video in which Sam explains his position quite frankly). But he also admits that he wasn't really an active user anyway: "Facebook's privacy policies are alarming, to be sure. But the truth is I'm not really getting any value out of Facebook, anyway, and I don't think I will really miss it."
On how confusing Facebook now is, Sam writes, "The simple fact is that Facebook has created a bewildering situation for its users. For most people, it's next to impossible to decipher what all of its frequent policy changes mean for individual privacy."
The thing is that the Facebook privacy settings aren't the least bit confusing for anyone who can be bothered to take 10 or 20 minutes to look at them and use Facebook's "help" function when necessary. My privacy is important enough to make me spend 10 or 20 minutes looking at all of my settings each time Facebook makes a change. I submit that Sam and many others are simply too lazy to take a few minutes to learn about the privacy settings on Facebook. That would have been much easier (and quicker) than writing his "quitting Facebook" article.
True Privacy on Facebook?
The second myth perpetuated by the anti-Facebook crowd is that privacy on Facebook isn't really privacy at all, and the company is just looking for ways to exploit users. I used to believe this too, so I'm not giving myself a pass on this issue. But I've come around. Facebook is a business. The company needs to make money in order to stay alive. If users aren't willing to pay for the service (and I think it's pretty clear that they aren't), then Facebook needs to find other ways to earn income.
Being attractive to advertisers means opening things up on Facebook. More access to user data means more revenue for Facebook. Can you really begrudge it that? Did I mention that Facebook is a business?
I think Facebook's problem is in its transparency -- or the perception of its transparency. It has to be up-front about the privacy controls and make sure users can know (if they bother to look) who can access what data.
Still a Downside
I am a little nervous about how Facebook is going to allow non-Facebook sites to access your data. The "like" button is changing. Sites that become partners with Facebook can get access to your "likes," and when you go to those outside sites, they can customize your experience there.
A good example is the idea that if you "like" a particular band on Facebook, when you go to the Pandora customized music site, for instance, that band's music could automatically show up on a playlist for you. If you're concerned about how these outside sites are going to be using your Facebook data, then take steps to avoid that stuff.
I don't really care what Mark Zuckerberg said in an instant message exchange six years ago when he was still a teenager and Facebook wasn't really a business. How many of us are guilty of saying unflattering things in emails we think are private? His attitude back then was not about today's Facebook. It was about a pet project of a college student. Big deal.
Remember that Facebook is a business. It needs to make money because of the cost to provide its service. If users aren't willing to pay any fees for Facebook, what's the alternative? The company is finding ways to incorporate advertising and applications, both of which can bring in money.
Facebook executives have to make judgment calls about what users want -- and will want years from now -- and execute their business strategy in a way that will appeal to people with money to spend. They've made their call. And of course, when talking to the media, they're going to talk in a way that supports their business model.
Admittedly, Facebook needs to achieve a delicate balance. It has to be able to give enough access to users' information to those willing to pay for it in order to make any money. But it has to allow some level of privacy that meets users' needs and desires if it wants to keep those users.
You Are Responsible
It's dangerous to believe that sites like Facebook are responsible for our privacy. We each have ultimate responsibility for our own privacy. Anything we put on the Internet, no matter how private we want it to be, is susceptible to being made public.
You thought your status updates and photos were private? They were until a friend let someone else use their account, or copied one of your photos and reposted it for public viewing. There are untold ways for our online data to become public, despite our best intentions. The only way to keep things truly private is by not posting them anywhere on the Internet.
Take the time to understand what is really private on Facebook and what is not. Deal with it, or don't be on Facebook. Users have every right to delete or deactivate their accounts, just like Sam did. You have the choice whether you participate and what you upload to your account. Choose wisely.