Earlier this month, Facebook sought to increase its reach by connecting with other sites across the Web. The Open Graph Protocol, announced at Facebook’s f8 Developers Conference, makes it easier for outside sites to share information with Facebook when visitors want to recommend a page. But Facebook has come under increasing scrutiny for making users’ data more public and available to search engines and for making changes to the terms of its privacy policy, which some users have been unaware of.

Credit: Technology Review

Few have been as vocal about Facebook’s actions as Danah Boyd, a social media researcher at Microsoft Research New England. More generally, she has called for Web companies to take more responsibility for how they handle users’ personal information. Technology Review‘s assistant editor, Erica Naone, recently talked with Boyd about how to think about Facebook’s latest moves.

Technology Review: Why is it so hard to keep up with the way Facebook works?

Danah Boyd: People started out with a sense that this is just for you and people in your college. Since then, it’s become just for you and all your friends. It slowly opened up and in the process people lost a lot of awareness of what was happening with their data. This is one of the things that frightens me. I started asking all of these nontechnological people about their Facebook privacy settings, and consistently found that their mental model of their privacy settings and what they saw in their data did not match.

TR: What’s been driving these changes for Facebook?

DB: When you think about Facebook, the market has very specific incentives: Encourage people to be public, increase ad revenue. All sorts of other things will happen from there. The technology makes it very easy to make people be as visible and searchable as possible. Technology is very, very aligned with the market.

TR: Some people dismiss concerns about this sort of situation by saying that privacy is dead.

DB: Facebook is saying, “Ah, the social norms have changed. We don’t have to pay attention to people’s privacy concerns, that’s just old fuddy-duddies.” Part of that is strategic. Law follows social norms.

TR: What do you think is actually happening to the social norms?

DB: I think the social norms have not changed. I think they’re being battered by the way the market forces are operating at this point. I think the market is pushing people in a direction that has huge consequences, especially for those who are marginalized.

TR: A lot of people wonder why it matters if companies share personal data. How are people affected by privacy violations?

DB: The easiest one to explain is the case of teachers. They have a role to play during the school day and there are times and places where they have lives that are not student-appropriate. Online, it becomes a different story. Facebook has now made it so that you can go and see everybody’s friends regardless of how private your profile is. And the teachers are constantly struggling with the fact that, no matter how obsessively they’ve tried to make their profiles as private as possible, one of their friends can post a photo from when they were 16 and drinking or doing something else stupid, and all of a sudden, kids bring it into school. We want teachers to be able to have a teacher relationship to our kids that is different from what the teacher has to their intimates. Yet the technology puts the teacher constantly at risk.

TR: What can users do about this kind of thing?

DB: I think that the voices need to start speaking up. They have with Facebook historically, and I think that’s the really interesting thing. Users have taken issue when the rules changed and the company gave no warning.

TR: But does it matter if users speak up?

DB: It’s different for different cases. [Facebook’s failed advertising platform] Beacon didn’t have the outcome you might have expected. Users said, “Oh my God, what is this? This is horrible.” And a class action suit ensued. That did not result in the service eventually being accepted.

TR: What sort of regulation would be helpful?

DB: If you’re going to change the privacy settings, the default should always be what the users originally chose, and you have to opt into changes. Period. End of story.

TR: What could Facebook do that would convince you they’d changed their ways?

DB: They need a set of actions that show that they’re paying attention. If they actually care about making certain that people have a real model of understanding about their privacy, the best thing they could do is have every post that they put up there show all the people who can actually see it or show how many people can see it. If you see something that is visible to 10 million people, you might think twice about what the heck you did with your privacy settings.

Source: http://www.technologyreview.com/web/25226/page2/


  1. kim

    We need end user visualisation and control

    I agree with many sentiments of the article. I advocate that end user control and visualisation are important characteristics that should be radically expanded in social networks. We also need ways to better understand inference channels in the network.

  2. kevinlenar...

    Marketing’s ‘Holy Grail’

    While we certainly need ‘privacy police’ out there maintain some semblance of control over what marketers are up to in the social networking sphere, constantly fretting over what companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter are doing TODAY with their technology misses the larger point.

    When Danah speaks to how ‘the market’ is influencing what corporations are trying to do with behavioural tracking and data mining, she is speaking to TOMORROW and the future of marketing: the marketing industry’s ‘Holy Grail’, fully addressable advertising. This goal is NOT some frightening ‘1984’ type of surveillance into our lives, it will be a reality wherein no one has to watch an ad for something they really want more than a couple of times, and wherein they NEVER see ads for things they have no interest in.

    The new generation, as I wrote about in this blog post: http://preview.tinyurl.com/25x7yhw ; is ready for fully addressable advertising now, if only some firm would just leap all the way to the goal, rather than trying to include (drag along) the older generations who grew up in a period of time that saw many powerful people (read: Bill Clinton) derailed through their privacy being compromised.

    The goal is not to invade anyone’s privacy, the goal is laudable, no more advertising ‘noise’ in the near future. The technology, wireless broadband, GPS and smartphones, is here, Apple has introduced “Web 3.0” (financial control of the flow of content) with the iPad and the Millennials are willing to try out fully addressable advertising right now. Don’t be surprised if Apple, not Microsoft, Google or Facebook, is first in with a new version of their iPhone OS that cracks marketing’s “Holy Grail”.

  3. dasrecht

    Re: Marketing’s ‘Holy Grail’

    Kevin conveys a belief that targeted advertising is better than non-targeted, ( and it is for the advertiser for sure) and that we must have advertising for some reason. To be sure, content on the internet will remain free only if advertising persists, but I suggest that I would rather move to other models than give up my privacy to advertisers and be pursued by them as they learn my ever wish and whim by following me around on the internet. I would prefer to pay for the services I really want and otherwise be left alone. I believe there a “pull” model is possible, that is, a promoter makes sure that I find their product if I am looking for it rather than believing that they can figure out what I want and “push” it to me. Pull model sites with CPA rewards to the seller should be the winners.

  4. hornman

    Re: Marketing’s ‘Holy Grail’

    Excellent statement of a key reason for the cultural shift now clearly beginning toward paying fairly for web content & services!
    I hope Facebook gets the message in time again.

  5. Netizen

    Facebook posted my real name

    After Facebook betrayed my privacy by posting my real name on a major forum (when it ordinarily posted ‘Facebook User’ like it did for the Facebook user attacking me) I went and set all so-called Privacy settings to the most restrictive level, deleted all personal information, and even used bogus information where absolutely required. Facebook betrayed my privacy, and now I will not invest a dime in Facebook stock if they ever go public (not wanting to risk eventual collapse when enough people get hurt like I did).

  6. boustrepho

    Concerned by Facebook

    This article is spurring me to do something I should have done a while ago. I am going to delete all of the personal information from my Facebook account. I have tried to maintain the highest levels of privacy, limiting everything to my contacts (and even creating levels of access within those), but it seems that FB do not respect this. I may even close it down.

  7. GMJ

    Privacy has not changed…

    Privacy has not changed, only the methods by which it can be violated. I no longer have a Facebook account and it was specifically because I wanted to keep my private life exactly that- private. I found it difficult to do so when so much of what I did was on Facebook, MySpace, and the rest.

    Maybe posting/sharing such information, private or otherwise, fulfills some deep need for most people. But that need will seem insignificant when the consequence is the loss of privacy, freedom and the “commodification” our lives.

    The only solution to all this is for people to not post information they do not want on the web. Guard you privacy and not let some corporation do it for you.

  8. Joe Public

    Get The Internet Off Facebook

    First my friends joined, then, my newsgroups, now the companies I do business with are following fast.
    I can’t reply to them, comment on their articles, download and print coupons, file customer feedback, shop online, donate to charities—because they joined Facebook and I didn’t.
    Even worse, they all surrendered their address books upon joining.
    I will find other friends, charities, businesses, and newspages. But, Facebook should take non-members out of their list of usable contacts, because we didn’t agree to their policies.


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