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Facebook and idiotic PR privacy claims - Nothing to See Here

May. 11th, 2010

05:37 pm - Facebook and idiotic PR privacy claims

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Facebook has a history of disregard for users' privacy, and a history of making BS claims about caring about it.

I use Facebook because, in spite of their bad business practises, it is too useful to me for keeping in touch with friends and family, hearing about their lives and sharing things about my own with them.

Today, an executive from Facebook (Elliot Schrage) "answered" questions on nytimes.com. I say answered in quotes because as you might expect he skirted around the questions and said what he wanted to rather than truly answering many of them.

In response to a user's question about why they can no longer limit what strangers see about them to almost nothing and why even their interests now have to public, Schrage said:

Joining Facebook is a conscious choice by vast numbers of people who have stepped forward deliberately and intentionally to connect and share. We study user activity. We’ve found that a few fields of information need to be shared to facilitate the kind of experience people come to Facebook to have. That’s why we require the following fields to be public: name, profile photo (if people choose to have one), gender, connections (again, if people choose to make them), and user ID number. Facebook provides a less satisfying experience for people who choose not to post a photo or make connections with friends or interests. But, other than name and gender, nothing requires them to complete these fields or share information they do not want to share. If you’re not comfortable sharing, don’t.
Either the man is stupid or disingenuous or both. It is quite clear to anybody with half a brain that the choice to SHARE is separate from the choice about WITH WHOM to share. "Oh, if you don't want to share then don't share!" is a monumentally stupid reaction to the question, and the command that people make a conscious choice is also a red herring. Yes, people choose to join Facebook ... but I doubt the reason for that has anything to do with being able to see random strangers' interests ... and for Facebook to flippantly tell people that they shouldn't share (with their friends/family) if they don't want to publish the information to the world is to totally ignore the entire point of the question/criticism. The fact that you can choose to opt out of a significant channel of information about the lives of your friends and family is not a justification for user-hostile privacy (lack of) choices.

Then, further down, there's this claim:
Everything is opt-in on Facebook. Participating in the service is a choice. We want people to continue to choose Facebook every day. Adding information — uploading photos or posting status updates or “like” a Page — are also all opt-in. Please don’t share if you’re not comfortable. That said, we certainly will continue to work to improve the ease and access of controls to make more people more comfortable. Your assumption about our assumption is simply incorrect. We don’t believe that. We’re happy to make the record on that clear.
... which would be hilarious if he weren't saying it with a straight face and expecting people to believe it. There have been so many cases in the past year where Facebook have quietly started making things public or allowing access to one's information in subtle ways without any notice, e.g. the fact that they quietly made it possible to search for anybody's profile by e-mail address (allowing harvesting of real names, etc., to go with addresses if you had a list thereof -- their claims of attempting to recognise misuse of the feature were rather pathetic) and last week the revelation that visiting certain sites had allowed apps to be added to your Facebook account silently, without confirmation or notification.

Lastly, there is this:
It turns out that less than 20 percent of users had filled out the text fields of this information. By contrast, more than 70 percent of users have ‘liked’ Pages to be connected to these kinds of ideas, experiences and organizations. That is the primary reason we offered the transition — because it reflects the way people are using our service already. While we see tremendous benefit to connecting to interests, we recognize that certain people may still want to share information about themselves through static text. That’s why we continue to provide a number of places for doing this, including the Bio section of the profile. In these places, just as when you share a piece of content like a photo or status update, we give you complete control over the privacy of the information and exactly who can see it. However, we know we could have done a better job explaining all of this and you can expect to see new materials on the site soon. I’m sorry we didn’t do a better job.
A ridiculous justification for a ridiculously lame implementation. They didn't "offer" the transition. They presented users with "we're going to make it public ... or you can delete it". Offering, which they could have done, could have involved offering you a list of your schools/employers and offering you the option for each of having it linked to a profile and making that connection public or have it remain a plain text string (it is really not hard from a database perspective to have the elements of a list be either a plain text string or a link to an entity). Saying you can use your bio to share the information in plain text form is a huge step backwards in usability and means someone (that you do want to permit to do so) looking for that info has to scrounge around looking to see if you've listed, say, your jobs somewhere other than in the, uh, section for jobs. How unhelpful!

Facebook is so huge that they don't really need to listen if they piss off a mere million or so users. This sort of P.R. BS is not really going to satisfy the users who are annoyed, but it might serve to make the users who are blindly accepting of their nonsense think they are trying. Frustrating.

Current Location: Redwood City, CA
Current Mood: aggravatedaggravated
Current Music: "Switchback" - Celldweller

Comments:

[User Picture]
From:maeglin73
Date:May 12th, 2010 12:55 pm (UTC)
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Indeed... if Foursquare and Gowalla were as concerned about privacy, home robbery would be much more rampant than it is.

I keep using Facebook for the same reason that you do, though. The usefulness outweighs the cons of keeping up with privacy settings and promptly locking down any new settings they add that default at being wide open.

As for the linking of what was previously text information, I agree there too. After resisting that for a while, it was finally forced, and now I'm going through and removing unwanted links.
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[User Picture]
From:mavjop
Date:May 12th, 2010 03:19 pm (UTC)
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I'm sort of amazed that it's not more of a problem (with things like foursquare) than it is, especially when I see people's 4sq updates going to twitter and the like, thus being truly broadcast. People concern themselves only with avoiding broadcasting, say, their home address, but not with the fact that the rest of the time they are broadcasting that they are NOT home, and their home address may not be terribly hard to find elsewhere. Perhaps it's a case of low-hanging fruit -- that is, those people broadcasting that they are not at home but not broadcasting their home address are less easy picking than those who *are* broadcasting their home address? I don't know.

I decided I was ok with the few things I had listed being linked, but I don't have a lot of entries in schools/employment. I *should* have been given the choice, though.
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[User Picture]
From:maeglin73
Date:May 12th, 2010 03:36 pm (UTC)
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The crucial difference is that Twitter and Facebook linkage from Foursquare actually is opt-in (as opposed to Facebook's clouded interpretation of opt-in), and it's easily configurable as far as what gets posted to a public (or even a semi-public) area. It's purely the choice of the people posting their check-ins like that to be as public as they are about their lives. From what I've heard in the case of Gowalla, they have privacy settings as well, but they're not that granular.

In my own case, I'm on Foursquare, but you've seen what I've posted to FB and Twitter... almost nothing and nothing, in that order. On top of that, what few posts go to FB are set to be friends-only. Everything else is confined to the handful of people I've connected to on Foursquare.
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[User Picture]
From:mavjop
Date:May 12th, 2010 04:59 pm (UTC)
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Oh, I totally agree that things being published without your knowledge is far more of a problem, but it's pretty amazing how many people are publishing their location by choice.
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