Facebook Users Deserve Complete Control Of Their Data

“Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg told a live audience yesterday that if he were to create Facebook again today, user information would by default be public”. That’s Marshall Kirkpatrick’s interpretation of Mark Zuckerberg’s comments in an interview with Mike Arrington at yesterday’s Crunchies event. While I’m a little hesitant about drawing a similar conclusion, the question of a user’s privacy rights is still being discussed weeks after Facebook rolled out their new privacy settings. The reason it’s still being discussed is that users no longer have complete control of their information, something that will continue to be a point of contention until resolved.

When Facebook changed their privacy settings, they also forced users to make more information completely public. What “public” actually means is not straight forward. Take for instance the following comment on Kirkpatrick’s article yesterday:

As a person who is being stalked for being an innocent bystander in a child custody case, I can tell you that losing my choices over what is searchable or not is huge. I have nothing to hide nor be ashamed of but the loss of choice for my privacy has hit home in a poignant manner.

Deanna McNeil, who originally posted the comment, isn’t completely accurate in regards to not having control “over what is searchable or not”. In fact there are still search privacy settings which allow you control who you are visible to. While there is still a privacy loophole which we highlighted last week, it’s extremely difficult for someone to access your data if you configure your privacy settings properly.

While the information is still not easy to access, as Marshall Kirkpatrick rightly points out:

Your name, profile picture, gender, current city, networks, Friends List, and all the pages you subscribe to are now publicly available information on Facebook.

If the world was black and white, Marshall Kirkpatrick’s statement would be 100% right. The fact that a grey area exists in the first place is unfortunate. Users should have 100% complete control over their data. Taken to the extreme, users should be able to flip a switch and turn off the visibility of all identity data first accessed by a third-party when they visited a Connect-enabled website or Facebook application.

Facebook’s perspective that the “world is becoming more open” is somewhat of a cop out. Yesterday, Mark Zuckerberg made the following statement to Mike Arrington and the entire Crunchies audience:

People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.

We view it as our role in the system to constantly be innovating and be updating what our system is to reflect what the current social norms are.

User privacy settings should theoretically reflect the ongoing societal shift without Facebook making any changes whatsoever. If users truly want to share more information with the world, they will. All information shared by users should be at their discretion. If Facebook wishes to change their service to make information public by default, that’s fine, but users should still have complete control. While you probably shouldn’t publish content on the web that you don’t want to be visible, Facebook’s privacy settings enabled you to control your identity content visibility around the web, making the privacy settings a tool of empowerment.

When Facebook decided that they would start making these decisions on behalf of users, they crossed the line. Facebook doesn’t need to update their system to “reflect what the current social norms are”. Instead, Facebook should give users complete control of their privacy and as a result, user settings in aggregate will effectively “reflect what the current social norms are”. Simplifying a system which gives users complete control of their privacy isn’t easy but the value of such a system is priceless and for Facebook it’s necessary.

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