Privacy and Facebook: Give a Little Here, Take a Little There?

Over the past year, Facebook has seemed more protective of privacy than ever before.  Its fan pages for government entities and businesses exemplified an exciting new way that technology can enshrine privacy into its architecture.  Facebook fan pages resemble one-way mirrors (or sorts), permitting individuals to provide feedback to government agencies and bFacebookusinesses and to gain insight into those entities’ worlds while forbidding those entities from peering back into their fans’ personal profiles.  This encourages civic engagement while eliminating concerns that fans’ social media data will be used for purposes that individuals’ would not endorse, such as law enforcement, immigration matters, etc.   In a forthcoming piece in the George Washington Law Review, I credit Facebook as a privacy norm entrepreneur for building fan pages and urge sites like MySpace to follow Facebook’s lead.  Doing so might even enhance user loyalty if stories emerge regarding government’s misuse of social media data from competitors’ sites.

Facebook’s launch of its new privacy settings this week, however, dampened my enthusiasm about its role as a privacy change leader.  To be sure, Facebook should be credited for explaining consumers’ choices more clearly with its new privacy settings.  But unfortunately they tend to push users to share more information, more widely, than the previous settings.  They also don’t provide a default setting that would permit more granular privacy choices vis-a-vis one’s social relationships.  Unless users take the time to customize particular postings (i.e., each time they write a wall post, upload a picture, etc.), privacy settings provide broad accessibility to wall postings, photos, etc. (to everyone as a default matter now) rather than permitting users to choose which friends can see those materials as a default matter.  This matters because users tend not to change default settings, a particularly likely result as users access Facebook via their PDAs and cellphones.

Granular default settings would more appropriately accord with our lived experiences.  Indeed, this is precisely the point that Dan Solove makes in The Future of Reputation: because our social relationships are nuanced and our levels of comfort in sharing information varies depending on the particular relationship, privacy settings should allow us to map those differences and honor them.  Although some note that the new privacy settings make it harder to preserve privacy (that may be true or untrue, I trust that social network experts like Dan, James Grimmelmann, and Bill McGeveran will drill down on that issue), my great disappointment is that the new privacy settings failed to introduce more granularity as a default matter–a missed opportunity indeed.  So Facebook has given us much with fan pages and not much more with its new privacy settings.  But let’s be thankful for what we did get, it’s the holiday season after all.

UPDATE:  Logical Extremes has a superb list of links for those interested in finding out more about the privacy implications and dangers of the new privacy policy.  Thanks to Bruce Boyden for helping me sort out these issues.

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7 Responses

  1. Bruce Boyden says:

    It looks to me like you can customize the settings for each post by defining groups or blocking specific people. But I don’t see a way to limit posts to certain groups as a default, so you’d have to do it each time.

  2. Danielle Citron says:

    Thanks so much, Bruce. Yes, that is what I assumed as I played around with the settings. That is a shame about the lack of a default function regarding groups and friends.

  3. ACLU dotRights & EFF have had the best details on what the changes mean in practice. Yes, there are more granular controls for new posts, but users are being migrated to more open settings, and probably worse, more data is now declared Publicly Available Information with no say by the user.

    “PAI” [now] includes your name, profile photo, list of friends, pages you are a fan of, gender, networks to which you belong, and current city.” – PAI used to include only Name and Networks.

    I’ve put what I think are the best posts on the Facebook Privacy change in my Twitter stream:

    But this post says it best about the new public social graph, which I believe is the most egregious violation of privacy by Facebook:

  4. BTW, if you click the lock icon pulldown below the “What’s on your mind?” field, there is a Customize choice. Within that, you can set up a default.

  5. Danielle Citron says:

    That is incredibly helpful scoop, Logical Extremes. Thanks so much!