Can Facebook Give Consumers Control of Their Data?

One of the primary issues facing consumers in the digital era is control of their private data. Yesterday I wrote about the Peter Jennings special “No Place to Hide” which covered a lot of the issues facing consumers. The reality is that munch of our transactional data is already tracked and used to create custom profiles of our identities. Online there is currently no way to manage that data and all one can rationally conclude is that somewhere along the line our data is being sold.

Give the Users Control

Facebook could provide an interesting solution: enable users to sell their data to advertisers. The pinnacle of this system has been discussed for years. A single system in which users can grant and revoke advertisers’ access to personal data at the user’s discretion. The reality is that such a theoretically beautiful system can’t compete with existing systems. That’s because advertisers can currently purchase your data and then they are free to do as they please.

With the assistance of personal privacy laws, Facebook could potentially give the consumers back control. With Facebook Connect, the users have control which contrasts to the first iteration of Facebook Beacon. In this new system, the users really do have control of the data that remote services can access. As one developer told me though “there is the terms of service and then there’s the laws of physics”.

Challenges Ahead

In other words the system makes a lot of sense as long as the developers abide by Facebook’s rules. Facebook has already had issues with this on the existing Facebook platform. We saw this issue arise when it became clear that users that had used Slide’s Fun Wall application had their entire profiles exposed to other users. Eventually Facebook realized the problem and shut down the application until Slide resolved the issue.

Policing the net isn’t scalable though. Automated systems are important in digital enforcement which means Facebook must focus on automating their policing activities. Facebook is being careful as they roll out Facebook Connect because any flaws in the system could prove catastrophic. Luckily for Facebook (and potentially not so lucky for the developer) users’ personally identifiable data is still protected by Facebook.

Taking One Step Forward

While we may not have complete control of our data in which we can grant and revoke access to advertisers, Facebook Connect is one step in the right direction. The reality is that users must have control of their data. Even Facebook doesn’t give users complete control yet though: users still have their personal data locked within Facebook’s databases and it’s not coming out anytime soon.

There is clearly a competitive rationale behind not giving users’ complete control. Is it possible to give users complete control of data access while limiting data ownership? Definitely and that’s exactly what Facebook is attempting to do. This doesn’t work as a long-term strategy but in the short-run it will most definitely help move toward giving the users back control.

For now we must accept that this is a step in the right direction yet still remain critical of future moves. Privacy is something that consumers lost control of long ago. Perhaps these new social services can begin to give the control back to the users.