Analysis: Some Facebook Privacy Issues Are Real, Some Are Not

Facebook has consistently pushed its users to make more personal information public over the last several years. It believes doing so will allow it to offer better products to users, and the marketers and developers who want to reach them.

But some users, privacy groups and politicians have matched its moves with vocal protests, lawsuits and more recently, official investigations. The controversy only appears to be intensifying.

Below, we’ll closely examine the Facebook privacy issues being debated, from social plugins to Instant Personalization, to the terms of service changes, and many others besides. We’ll provide a straightforward description of what each change was, followed by our analysis of how serious the issues are around each change.

We’ll follow up in a separate article with our  broader conclusions about the changes, the issues and what they mean for Facebook, its users, and everyone else. Before we delve into the specifics, here’s a quick overview of the new risks, and some background.

The Risks

Some criticism of certain aspects of these launches seems fair, like the way that Facebook directed users to make profile interests public. But some people also seem bewildered by the sheer number and complexity of the changes, and are assuming the worst about all of them as a result.

Fairly or not, critics are advocating for regulations or other forms of restrictions on how Facebook handles user privacy, and are even recommending that users leave the site.

The issues are creating new risks not just for Facebook users, but for the company and its ecosystem of developers and marketers.

One risk is that a significant number of people actually do stop using Facebook completely, possibly out of fear of how their data might be used, but also because they are fatigued by the constant changes. This hasn’t happened yet, despite many critics predicting that it would over the years. But there could still be a tipping point, where the build-up of issues finally convinces people to leave en masse.

The other risk is that agencies from national governments, particularly the United States’ Federal Trade Commission, impose stiff new regulations on what product changes that Facebook can make going forward, thereby limiting its ability to improve its products.

This Is Not a New Debate

This round of Facebook changes is arguably not any more significant than past privacy-related ones — like the launch of its news feed, Connect, the application platform, Beacon, the altered publisher tool, and the regularly edited terms of service, to name a few. But the stakes have risen.

Facebook has grown to be the largest social web sevice in the world, with nearly 500 million monthly active users by our most recent estimate. It has turned a profit, and now it appears to gradually be moving towards an initial public offering.

The company is typically aggressive about how it is trying to become more open. Sometimes it moves hastily, or provides an unclear interface, or pushes users to do things that some of them don’t want to do. It has had these sorts of problems before and it has gotten a lot of criticism as a result — Facebook’s critics of today have had years to hone their techniques.

The news feed was met with user outrage when it launched years ago, because Facebook aggregated data about users’ activities in an easy to view way. Even though the data it used was available already, users felt betrayed because that availability became far more obvious. But everyone got used to it, and the news feed has become Facebook’s main avenue for sharing information; in fact, it has been so successful that many other companies have built similar products to help users process information more easily. Facebook overcame users’ gripes, and that success seems to have given it the confidence to keep pushing regardless of criticism.