Saturday, June 05, 2010

Facebook's latest privacy changes still raise potential questions and controversies: is "self-broadcast" ultimately at risk?

Earlier this week Facebook greeted users on sign-on with a banner advising them that new Privacy Controls were available.

Facebook’s press release, around June 1, was lengthy and is to be found here. Electronic Frontier Foundation immediately came out with an article and news update by Kevin Bankston, “Facebook privacy changes inspire praise, optimism, and skepticism”, link (web url) here.  The basic concepts of “Everyone”, “Friends” and “Friends of Friends” remain.

There is still a long list to go through in the segmented privacy settings. For example, the concept of being “tagged in” is important. Facebook warns “Keep in mind, the owner of a photo can still share that photo with people you're not friends with, so remove the tag from the photo or video if you don't want that to happen.”

But the most controversial part (and perhaps still a bit fuzzy) has to do with the Public Search options. Facebook writes “’Public search’ on the Applications and Websites page controls whether people who enter your name in a search engine will see a preview of your Facebook profile.” I looked at the preview and saw basic non-private information like pictures of some friends, and favorite interests and movies. As a retiree, I have no issue with this; furthermore, my own experience with the mainstream world of corporate employers suggests that most would see looking at Facebook profiles for “first impressions” is not a good or completely ethical Human Resources business practice. Yet it’s clear that many people in the career counseling (and “online reputation”) field will advise clients not to allow the public (particularly because of some employers, maybe landlords or even insurance companies) see this information . There is a bit of an ethical dilemma here that as a society we need to face.

Another controversial question has to do with whether a Facebook profile will or should get picked up by public search engines. The default for adults is yes. However Facebook writes: “Until their eighteenth birthday, minors don't have public search listings created for them, and the visibility of their information is limited to friends of friends and networks, even if they've chosen to make it available to everyone. This does not apply to name, profile picture, gender and networks, which are visible to everyone so real world friends can recognize them.”

Presumably, Facebook can control whether a public search engine can create an entry from your profile at all. At least, that’s what the wording of the new policy means to me, taken literally. (The Supreme Court could have fun with this one.) Most mainstream adults would find that the service would not be particularly useful without a public search presence, or would they? There is a still a philosophical question about how many people one can “know” and how one should come to be known publicly. But there is a strategic risk here: if various business and government entities believe that Facebook and similar services can prevent a member from have a public search presence at all from their social media information, these same interests could pressure “ordinary” individuals (e.g. “ordinary people”) to become less “public” in order to control otherwise unbounded risks and uncertainties. That could pose a long term threat to social media (and to many individual strategic self-promotion or self-broadcast plans).

Let me also say that sometimes it is hard to see where to make changes; the font size on some links is not very conspicuous.

The privacy settings could be important in some unusual ways to some members of the United States military, at least until “don’t ask don’t tell” is finally completely repealed. The Pentagon might in time develop administrative guidelines as to how servicemembers should use privacy settings.

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