Examining your rights and Facebook’s privacy policies

“Your privacy is important to us.”

How many times have you heard this spiel? “Your privacy is important to us. Read our privacy policy.”

If your privacy was really important, would the websites that you visit every day, the ones that you use to share stories with family and connect with long-distance friends, need to continuously revise a contract to tell you so? If social media websites really did respect your privacy, would policies be so littered with jargon that the entire document reads like fine print?

One of the social media privacy (or “data use”) policies to capture the most heated attention is Facebook’s.

“A privacy policy is a disclosure document, whose purpose is to inform (and therefore protect) consumers,” Businessweek advised business owners. Yet all too often, there’s nothing informative about these unintelligible documents – and that may be the point.

Why the FTC Didn’t ‘Like’ Facebook’s Privacy Policy

“Confused by Facebook’s new privacy policy? You’re supposed to be,” read the title of Digital Trends’ blog post on the subject. It’s not just a subjective opinion, either. The social media site’s 2009 revisions to the privacy policy received such heated attention that the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed official complaints against the social media giant for what The New York Times referred to as “deceptive practices.” The specific policies that have come under fire include the automatic public display of personal information such as users’ names, location, gender, and (certain) photographs, as well as social media activity such as “liked” pages and friends lists. Users were not able to opt out of the publication of this private personal information.

More updates in May 2010 resolved some of these issues by allowing users some additional control over their privacy settings, but a settlement between Facebook and the FTC wasn’t officially settled until August 2012. The punishment for misleading users “by telling them they could keep their information on Facebook private, and then repeatedly allowing it to be shared and made public,” as the FTC stated, did not include any fines or force it to admit wrongdoing. Instead, the government agency was proactive, focusing on what Facebook can do in the future to protect users’ privacy.

While this particular firestorm has finally been extinguished, it wasn’t the site’s first privacy policy update to inspire backlash, and it probably won’t be the last. “Ever since Facebook was founded in 2004, Mark Zuckerberg, its chief executive, has pushed its users to share more information about themselves,” The New York Times wrote in 2010. “Time and again, users have pushed back, complaining that some new feature or setting on the site violated their privacy.”

Knowing that user complaints and federal sanctions follow privacy setting changes, you might expect any social media site to learn from past mistakes. Facebook’s administrators and staff might count themselves lucky that they escaped the financial penalties that the FTC hit Google with over its last privacy policy debacle.

If the business of Facebook was directly related to customer use – if, for example, users had to pay to maintain and use their accounts on the website – you may be right. But Facebook isn’t selling the website to users; instead, it’s selling users like you to advertisers. “The company thrives on allowing advertisers to target their potential customers with pinpoint accuracy, and that takes highly personal data,” reported Web Pro News. So, unless users’ anger reaches a point where there is a true boycott of the site to the point that it becomes an ineffective medium for advertising – unlikely, given how frequently many of us use the site without even thinking about it – Facebook isn’t exactly answering to us.