ftc

FTC settlement aside, Facebook still owns your privacy

Nov. 30, 2011 at 5:30 PM ET

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"I founded Facebook on the idea that people want to share and connect with people in their lives, but to do this everyone needs complete control over who they share with at all times," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a blog post Tuesday, following news of the social network's settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over mass privacy violations. "This idea has been the core of Facebook since day one." 

One need look no further than an IM exchange between a 19-year-old Zuckerberg and a friend soon after he launched Facebook in his Harvard dorm room in 2004 to call shenanigans on that statement alone:

Zuck: Yeah so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard

Zuck: Just ask.

Zuck:I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS

[Friend's name redacted]: What? How'd you manage that one?

Zuck: People just submitted it.

Zuck: I don't know why.

Zuck: They "trust me"

Zuck: Dumb f**ks.

But hey, who am I to resurface the youthful indiscretions of a responsible adult? That's Facebook's job — and that's the problem.

Everything about Facebook is designed to make it easy for people to reveal things about themselves. Nothing about Facebook's FTC settlement — and a spin-heavy mea culpa from the CEO and/or media consultant — changes that.

According to the FTCcomplaint, Facebook "deceived consumers by telling them they could keep their information on Facebook private, and then repeatedly allowing it to be shared and made public."

In the FTC settlement, Facebook is now barred "from making any further deceptive privacy claims." It also requires "that the company get consumer's approval before it changes the way it shares their data, and requires that it obtain periodic assessments of its privacy practices by independent, third-party auditors for the next 20 years."

The settlement does not require that Facebook restore the privacy settings it rolled back in 2009, which led to the FTC investigation. Much of your information is still widely available to the public — as well as to Facebook's business partners — by default. If you want more privacy, you need to "opt-out," otherwise your info is out there for anyone to see.

For example, Facebook has simplified the privacy settings, and given users more control. But hiding information involves granular settings, and many steps, while leaving your info for almost anyone to find is as easy as logging on to the site. If users even understand the privacy settings, limiting sharing to a certain group is a tedious effort compared to just posting their stuff to the known world. 

Oh, and guess what? There are still no privacy controls on your name and profile pic. It's right there in the Terms of Service.

Nothing in the FTC settlement requires Facebook to change that, so the big land grab Facebook made on your privacy two years ago remains a success. With two former FTC members in its employ, you best believe Facebook knows what it's doing. Facebook is increasingly inextricable from our lives. Take, for example, this article. Want to comment on it? Log on to Facebook.

The Kool-Aid that Facebook's increasingly asking you to drink is echoed here in Zuckerberg's note: "We made it easy for people to feel comfortable sharing things about their real lives." Easy, and now, almost impossible not to. But do you feel comfortable?

You shouldn't.

 "While Facebook claims that it retains this information only to improve the effectiveness of its social plugins, profiles like these are a potential goldmine to online advertisers and can be irresistible to law enforcement, not to mention other third parties like insurance companies or divorce attorneys," points out Chris Conley, Technology & Civil Liberties Fellow at the ACLU of Northern California.

Further, "the FTC is empowered to ensure that Facebook complies with the settlement, and Facebook has made a broad promise not to 'misrepresent' its privacy protections in the future," Conley writes. "But it’s not entirely clear whether the FTC would use this authority to challenge new Facebook products or services that aren't dealing with information currently covered by a privacy setting."

Got "nothing to hide?" That argument was never valid. A quick review of the Electronic Frontier Foundation's growing gallery of evidence revealing social media monitoring by various U.S. government agencies makes that clear. Just last year, via the Freedom of Information Act, EFF received "a number of documents from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) highlighting the government’s ability to scour not only social networks, but record each and every corner of the Internet."

 If that doesn't bother you even a little bit, given our current environment of "casually pepper-spraying cop," it really should.

But one needn't by cryptic to understand that privacy is tricky. Today’s benefit is so clear (ooh! cool photo) and tomorrow’s consequence so fuzzy (sorry, we can’t hire you). That means, any fair-minded social network would go overboard in protecting people’s privacy just to even the score.

In a world where we’ve forced McDonald’s to put calorie counts next to Big Macs on a menu, why can’t we tell Facebook it has to make people much more aware of the potential consequences of sharing, and build its tools to be privacy-first? Public sharing should be the opt-in. 

As my much smarter colleague Bob Sullivan (of Red Tape Chronicles fame)points out, "Using Facebook can be a lot like those horrible morning-after thoughts you have when you realize you wildly overshared the night before down at the bar. And Facebook is the free shots the bartender gave you."

More on the annoying way we live now:

Helen A.S. Popkin goes blah blah blah about privacy, then asks you to join her on Facebook and/or Twitter ... because that's how she rolls. Oh! Also, Google+.

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