Thursday, 10 June 2010

Facebook Privacy Concerns

Few days ago there was a lot of hullabaloo about Facebook's privacy settings. A number of newspapers and online media reported this. In my findings, there were 4 items which were targeted, namely:
  1. Articles questioned the way Facebook originated, highlighting the charges presented in a lawsuit which said that Mark Zuckerberg had stolen Facebook's idea from three of his seniors. 
  2. Later there were reports of some IM conversations between Zuckerberg and a college friend, which apparently highlighted Facebook's "cavalier attitude toward user privacy."
  3. There were also concerns regarding the complexity of Facebook's privacy settings. NYTimes calling it a "A bewildering tangle of options." One of the points presented in the NYTimes infographic being the length of Facebook's privacy policy, which is longer than the constitution of America, without amendments (a number of articles and tweets left out the "without amendments" part). 
  4. Then there were those who claimed that deleting a Facebook account is a "complex process" and as  Facebook didn't "provide an interface to delete your account" they had "crossed the border of unethical behavior."
The privacy concerns debate also started online activist movements, couple of which I personally noted:
  1. Quit Facebook Day. A movement aimed at making Facebook users delete their accounts by May 31st 2010.
  2. Diaspora. Which calls itself an "open source social network" which is "privacy aware." It's being developed by 4 college students. NYTimes did an article on them in which the time needed to write the code for the social network system is given as "three or four months."
To all these Facebook responded through:
  1. Elliot Schrage, vice president for public policy at Facebook, who answered privacy related questions on NYTimes.
  2. At a later stage, towards the end of May, Facebook updated their privacy settings UI aimed to "simplify the controls."
Although the debate has more or less died down, I felt it worthwhile to investigate the news articles and the online activist movements. I have listed below my opinions regarding each.

  1. Questions regarding the origins of Facebook. There is no denying the fact that there was a lawsuit against Mark Zuckerberg. The judge presiding over the case said that the allegations were "tissue thin" and both the parties eventually agreed to settle. Most of the article seems to be based on speculation and story-telling. 
  2. Zuckerberg's IM conversations. The article says that in the IM conversation Zuckerberg was joking and also the conversation was presented out of context: "Could Mark have been completely joking? Sure." As far as I'm concerned drawing conclusions from anything presented out of context is wrong. I don't see how something like this could show "Facebook's aggressive attitude towards privacy." 
  3. Complexity of Privacy Settings and Length of Privacy Policy. I agree that the earlier privacy settings UI was quite deep and a novice user must have found it difficult. But for an advanced user, it did provide a greater amount of granularity. The privacy policy is lengthy, but it was compared against the American Constitution (without amendments). Most people, and many other articles which I read, tended to ignore the "without amendments" part and started believing that the privacy policy is lengthier than the American Constitution -- which is false. 
  4. Difficulty in deleting a Facebook account. I didn't find the procedure to delete a Facebook account difficult. Searching for "delete account" in the Facebook help center pulls up the link which guides you how to delete your account permanently. I don't think the process is complex and Facebook does provide an interface to delete your account. Facebook's decision to first deactivate your account before deleting it makes sense for three reasons. First, Facebook wants to retain you as a user. Second, if you mistakenly delete your account you have a means to revert your action. Third, if someone else hacks into your account and deletes it, you can recover.
  5. Quit Facebook Day. I would call this movement a failure. According to this PCWorld article only 26000 people committed to delete their accounts. Note that they only "committed" to delete their account. It doesn't mean that they actually did. 26000 is not a large number if you think about the total number of users in Facebook. The number of people committed to quit is only 0.005 percent.
  6. Diaspora. I find no point in speculating over how great a new online social networking site is going to be without it even having a sign-up page. 
  7. Facebook's UI Change. The recent UI change, I feel, does give novice users an easier interface to control their privacy settings while allowing advanced ones to achieve more granular control. That seems to have quietened the skeptics, at least for now. 
I don't believe that Facebook is a company which doesn't do any evil. Just like Microsoft, Apple or Google, I'm sure that Facebook has skeletons in its closet. The point which I'm trying to make is that the media has been trying to concoct stories by wrongly interpreting facts or by paying no attention to facts.