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.

But Facebook has not been entirely successful in blowing through criticism. Its doomed Beacon advertising system, for example, tracked users’ activity across the web and shared it with their friends without asking permission to do so. The idea sounded promising — but the product itself violated user privacy. Facebook dropped the service eventually, after damaging months of public attacks and multiple ongoing lawsuits (some frivolous, of course).

The company has not been immune to governmental pressure over the years, either. It was forced to accommodate changes from the Canadian privacy commissioner last year. The changes to privacy features in December and the streamlined permissions dialogue introduced last month were, in part, efforts by the company to comply with the commissioner’s requirements.

Facebook’s moves in December set the stage for the current controversies. The main issue was that it required users to go through a transition tool (pictured) that set them up with new privacy settings. The process was confusing to many, and it directed users to make more information public in ways they might not have understood.

Privacy groups had a field day at that point — issues like these allow them to show themselves as fighting for the public good against powerful, selfish interests. Following waves of press coverage, ten of them filed a complaint with the FTC against Facebook. The FTC said it was looking at the situation, but it hasn’t said much since. Meanwhile, other governmental bodies, like the European Commission, have begun investigating on their own.

But these issues, like all the ones before them, have yet to hurt Facebook’s traffic. The most recent measurements from March and April show it booming in the US and around the world, as we’ve covered here and here.

So far, none of the late April changes have had significantly bad results, either.  There are no reports of users being harmed as a result of them, and Facebook itself tells us that traffic is up by nearly every measure following the launch.

We examine what the specific changes were below. Then we look at how people have responded, and whether their complaints are well-supported or not. In a follow-up article, we conclude with our view of how all the issues add up to impact Facebook — or don’t.

Personal Profile Information and Privacy Settings Change

The changes: On April 19, two days before major product launches at its f8 developer conference, Facebook introduced a significant update to how people can express interests in their profile.

Some users have extensively filled out their profiles with a wide variety of personal information, including their work and education history, and interests like music, movies and books. The company suggested that users automatically re-categorize their interests (though not other private personal information) into publicly-available Pages, so that a user from San Francisco, for example, would display that city’s Page.

If users didn’t want to do this, their other option was to delete the information completely or re-add it in the “Bio” field — neither of which were clearly pointed out.

Users were presented with a transition tool that asked them to add these Pages to their profiles. It featured two big buttons on the lower right: “Link All to My Profile” and “Ask Me Later.” The third option, “Choose Pages Individually,” was relatively de-emphasized. It was a link without a button, in smaller text than the other two, and over on the lower left part of the window. Explanatory text at the top of the tool said that the information would be public.

Adding a layer of complexity to this change were two more that Facebook pushed out at the same time. It re-arranged user privacy settings, a move based on the terms of service change it introduced at the beginning of April (we’ll look at the terms further down). Facebook made what it calls “General Information” public, with no option to hide it, as part of that terms change. This includes your and your friends’ names, profile pictures, gender, connections, and any content shared using the Everyone privacy settings. The only other option is to not provide this information in the first place, or delete it if you already had.

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