Facebook's Privacy Settings Present Intrinsic Limitations To The Platform

By Nick O'Neill Comment

-We Live In Public Icon-I’ve written countless times about Facebook’s “privacy facade” and how it could develop potential problems in their global expansion. Today, some developers and bloggers were disappointed that Facebook did not open up unrestricted global access to users’ streams. This means that developers cannot develop tools to analyze the information being shared on Facebook in aggregate unless every Facebook user installs their application.

Facebook’s privacy settings inherently limit the company’s ability to take on a product like Twitter Search which gives you access to 99 percent of the status updates taking place within the global Facebook network. This inability was the foundation of Marshall Kirkpatrick’s argument this afternoon that “the conversation on Facebook remains fundamentally closed due to extensive privacy limitations and the company’s disinterest in overcoming those limitations in an appropriate way.”

Do Users Want Privacy?

I would argue that Facebook can never eliminate Twitter unless they remove privacy settings. Facebook has always assumed that users want the ability to control their privacy on a granular level but on Twitter privacy has been boiled to two settings: private and public. The vast majority of users opt for public because they are either not aware of the privacy settings or choose not to enable them.

This brings up a fundamental question: do Facebook users truly want Facebook privacy settings? While many Twitter users would argue against privacy settings, Facebook knows that at least 30 percent of users actively manage their privacy settings. Dave McClure states a key example of why privacy settings are important in response to Marshall Kirkpatrick’s post:

my wife only wants me to upload photos of our kids to online services that have friends & family settings — she explicitly DOES NOT want me to do so on wide open / asymmetric follow systems like blogs or Twitter

Honestly, I think stating that Facebook users do not want privacy settings would be grossly inaccurate. Some Facebook users want them while a select few are willing to make their entire lives public. On Facebook you can have it both ways.

Do Developers Want More Data?

Of course! As a developer, a blogger, and a curious individual, I would like total, unfiltered access to everything that everybody in the world is doing. Unfortunately that will not happen as long as we have laws protecting individual privacy rights. Want to see what life is like with no privacy? The movie “We Live In Public” is a great view of what it’s like in a world with no privacy (I’ve embedded a copy below).

If you grant developers access to data, they will always figure out a way to do something with it. Media companies and advertisers will also invest heavily in aggregating and filtering the data that’s available. Unfortunately not all that information is available to developers on Facebook unless explicitly granted by the users. Contrast that with Twitter where just about everybody’s status updates are available for the world to view and accessible via the Twitter API.

At the end of the day, many of us would like access to the most intimate details of every human being in the world (it’s the pinnacle of voyeurism). Unfortunately (or fortunately depending how you look at it), total access to data is something that won’t be publicly available in my lifetime. Facebook understands this and fundamentally supports users’ right to privacy.

Is Facebook Closed?

If you think privacy settings create an inherently closed system then yes, Facebook is closed. If you think that users don’t want privacy settings then you are only fooling yourself. Many users would not like you to aggregate their Facebook status updates without their explicit permission. This is exactly the reason that Facebook Beacon was such a disaster: most users wanted the choice to share their information.

On Twitter there is still a choice: share or don’t share. The vast majority of the time, if you choose to share on Twitter it becomes public. The same is not the case on Facebook. The day that all information on Facebook becomes public is the day that the world has lost all rights to privacy. I would still like to aggregate all of the activity taking place on Facebook but unfortunately that’s not possible. It may never be.

I can do a hell of a lot though: I can aggregate all the activity taking place among “AllFacebook” community members and any other site can do the exact same thing. There may however be a compromise between those wanting data and users who want to maintain their privacy.

Finding A Privacy Balance

One place where Facebook can tackle the privacy hurdle: public profiles. If Facebook provides unrestricted access to public profile data (since they are inherently “public”), developers will be able to get the aggregate information they want while users still get their granular privacy settings. Everybody wins. Earlier today I spoke with Facebook about having session-less access to the status.get method but I haven’t heard back from them yet.

As far as I know (and via my own basic tests), public profile statuses are already publicly available. I even wrote two weeks ago that developers can access “the status updates of many pages that you are not a fan of.” In other words, public profile statuses are already available for aggregation. Do you think aggregate Facebook user data should be available for developers to access?