Facebook Privacy: an Oxymoron?

If you’re online, odds are you are a member of at least one social networking site – probably Facebook. And you already know that the things you do online can affect your friends online. But you may not realize the many ways that decisions about your own privacy can affect your friends.

For example, say you have some friends on Facebook who have decided to opt in to Facebook’s privacy settings. They want to keep their Facebook profile and various information from getting into Google. That’s certainly understandable, whether or not they’ve shared anything embarrassing. But you don’t share their opinion, so you’ve left your profile public.

Now say someone searches for you in Google. Your Facebook profile will turn up; no surprise there. But listed beneath your profile may be the names of a few of your friends…including the ones who chose to make their profiles private. For good or ill, you’ve just unintentionally “outed” your friends.

Even experts on search and social media can get caught. Nichola Stott, co-founder of TheMediaFlow and a specialist in search, social media, and online monetization, left her Facebook profile open. Her friend and business partner Stephen Adds closed his. As you’d expect, you can go right to Stott’s Facebook profile if you search for her in Google; some of the names of her 232 friends do show up in Google. When I did the search, Adds was not among them, and I didn’t feel like sifting through the Facebook list (a theme I’ll return to in a bit).

If you search on “Stephen Adds” in Google, however, thanks to Stott leaving her profile open, you’ll find him as well. You’ll even find some of his friends listed under his name. (As of the time of writing, that link was on page two of the results). Stott thinks this result is counter intuitive; still, it makes her feel “unnerved, but not surprised…I knew it was coming.”

Technologically, what’s happening is that Google is simply grabbing public information from Facebook, but it looks like some members don’t agree on what they want to treat as “public information.” So the “default” seems to be in favor of keeping it public and searchable. Or as Google put it when queried recently, “This is public information that Facebook has published using the hCard and XFN microformats that are supported by our Rich Snippets feature."

Google has an agreement with Facebook that allows the search engine to pull this information into its SERPs. It’s not just Google, though; other search engines can crawl Facebook’s public information. So how do you keep your information private on Facebook?

It isn’t easy. The New York Times noted that if you want to protect your privacy on the social networking site, you’ll have to navigate through 50 settings with more than 170 options. Why? Well, Facebook says that it wants to give its users fine-grained control of what they share and what they keep private. That’s admirable, but in the process the company seems to have lost sight of a different imperative: keeping it simple. How many users are going to jump through that many hoops?

The answer, it seems, is “not many.” There are plenty of users who have at least some privacy controls in place. But others are taking a different route. Matt Cutts, along with others in the tech industry, have opted out of Facebook completely, deactivating their accounts. It doesn’t seem to be anything one can call a movement, but it does give one pause. There are any number of reasons one may opt out of a social network, but certainly the labyrinth of privacy settings couldn’t have helped. And if some of the best and brightest are choosing to leave Facebook – and the privacy maze – maybe it’s not really serving its purpose after all.

Many, if not most, of Facebook’s users are aware of the privacy issues and challenges. Some think very deeply about it; after all, before the development of the Internet, and for decades after, we all took our privacy pretty seriously. It may be that we can look at those pre-Internet days and find a model for privacy that still works, in a sense, today.

One of my own Facebook friends mentioned being asked by her sister why she stays with the social network “in the face of all the privacy issues.” Her answer? “In this electronic age the only privacy that we have, inside or outside of Facebook, is the anonymity of size.” It’s a little like the difference between living in a small town and a big city; everyone knows you in a small town, but in a big city, you just blend in with everyone else.

My friend points out that if you Google her, you can find out quite a bit about her; if you check her out on Facebook, you can find out even more, even “what I eat for breakfast sometimes, that I like my Starbucks coffee,” her tastes in music and books, and so forth. But “Is there really anyone out there who cares about that, other than my personal friends?” she asks.

My friend has an excellent point. And perhaps the privacy we embraced before as being oh so important was somewhat illusory. My friend points out that things like her name, current address, employer, and lots of other details “are things that it is just as easy for a motivated, computer-wise person to find out with or without Facebook.” If we’re going to be out in society rather than hiding in a cave somewhere without modern conveniences such as credit cards, bank accounts, and Internet access, we may have to accept this, hard as it seems.

What about issues of identity theft? Surely that’s easier now, and more of a concern? Well, yes…but don’t think it didn’t happen before computers. My friend notes that the only time it happened to her “was more than twenty years ago and it happened because of a piece of carbon paper on a credit card slip.”

Certainly, Facebook should make it easier for its users to set the level of information sharing they want. And they should also find a way to keep friends from accidentally sharing more than they intended about friends who aren’t so open. But we’ve always known that information we don’t want to get out about us has a way of doing so; the situation with Google and Facebook just brings that point into stronger relief. The question is, what are we going to do about it? And each user will have to answer that question individually – privately, even – and act accordingly.

For more information on this, check out the following link: http://www.mediapost.com/publications/?fa=Articles.showArticle&art_aid=128255

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