Yes, Facebook Broke Your Trust, and Yes, That’s a Good Thing

It seems like every other post I read these days is about whether Facebook violated users trust, or whether they were wrong, or right in opening up more.  It’s eerily repetitive for someone that’s written 2 (and 3rd on the way) books on the subject and who’s been following Facebook pretty intimately for the past 3 or more years since they launched their platform and exploded like wildfire.  Originally, it was “Facebook is too private”, or “Facebook is a walled garden”.  Suddenly, Facebook opens up, and it happens again, but this time “Facebook is too open”, or “Facebook killed privacy”, or “My trust has been violated”.  I don’t know why it bugs me, because this happens every year, some times a few times a year, and Facebook still keeps exploding like wildfire.

I’ve been debating this privacy post for awhile now, but I really want to get some thoughts out.  For a long time before Facebook became “open”, I had a post in mind where I really wanted to share why I thought Facebook’s “private by default” rules were cheating its users.  At the time, users were sharing information, but they really didn’t know that, despite the “walled garden” they were in, it was pretty easy to do a quick search on them, and, with just a simple Facebook account you could have their work history, name, location, picture, parties they got drunk at, and much, much more information all available to the public.  Look at this picture – this was in 2007!  Heck, even as far back as 2005 all they had to be is a friend to get access to that information – you apply for the job, they send a request, you accept because you want the job, and voila, all that information, exposed.  (Note that this picture doesn’t reveal the fact that most people didn’t lock down the pictures they saved)

Image courtesy AllFacebook.com, via Matt McKeon.

In the book I wrote with Jason Alba way back in 2007 (I’m on Facebook–Now What???), we shared these exact concerns – they were nothing new.  We shared the example of the “30 Reasons Girls Should Call it a Night” Group on Facebook, and warned, “Always be careful with what you put online, anywhere… photos, comments, thoughts, opinions.  Don’t write or upload something you might later regret!” (Chapter 8, Page 76).  We shared examples of people getting fired from their jobs simply because their friends were co-workers when they stated they were going to be sick and posted about partying all day on their Facebook profile.  We also shared (Page 44) that basically all your information was available to your friends and your entire network(s) by default at the time.  Remember – this was back in 2007.  Facebook had this problem way back then, and it’s amazing that this stuff is still very applicable!

The problem with starting out private is that users are being tricked into thinking their data will never be exposed.  It’s too difficult to know what is open, and what is private.  Sure, privacy controls are cool and all, but what good are they if no one knows how to use them and everyone just assumes that everything they put on the service will remain between just them and their “friends”?

That’s the dilemma Facebook “faced” as they had a “private by default” mentality.  In reality, being “private by default” was bad for the users because the users were being tricked into thinking their data could never become public.  Let’s face it – anything with a search box at the top that lets you search amongst at a minimum your friends, but in reality, at least since 2007 and even earlier, has the potential for the information you shared on that service to be discovered by anyone on the network itself.

Facebook had to make data public by default for them to be fair to their users.  Facebook was in a tough position to be in, but it was a necessary “evil” for the better good of their service.  Now, users can know with 100% certainty that the data they share is public by default and they should be careful before sharing it.

“But, Facebook should have made that opt-in”, you say?  The problem with that is Facebook would have still been cheating their users.  Instead, Facebook sent an e-mail to all their users notifying them of the change, and gave them the opportunity to opt-out.  In addition, the next time you logged into Facebook, all users (note that, according to Facebook’s stats, over half of Facebook users log in at least once daily) were prompted to adjust their privacy settings if they didn’t agree with the changes.  They did that again as they added new features, and thus, new privacy settings you could opt out of.

The fact is that Facebook had to open up in order for them to be fair to their users.  In my opinion, Facebook was being unfair to their users by not being open by default.  The fact is, regardless of this change, Facebook still has the best privacy controls of any service out there, and still gives you the most control over your privacy, but at the same time everyone now knows they have to set it to be so if they choose to be private.  At the same time everyone now knows they should now think twice before posting that drunk photo of them at the party last night.  At the same time we are becoming a much more open, less anonymous society.

Privacy is good.  So is openness.  Identity is good.  Anonymity is not.  By making Facebook a more open place, they are encouraging us, as a society to be more open about what we share.  They’re encouraging us to become more forgiving of one another.  They’re encouraging us to do fewer things in closets, and encouraging more to come out.  They’re encouraging entire regimes to share more, and thus, changing the world in the process.

While Facebook broke all of our trust, I think they’re making it right by making us a much more open society.  They’re removing anonymity amongst us in the process, and we’re growing because of it.  I hope they continue to build privacy controls.  At the same time I hope they continue to encourage us to be a more open people.  Let’s stop lying to ourselves – your data, when on the web, is almost never 100% private.  We need to stop cheating ourselves of that fact.

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24 thoughts on “Yes, Facebook Broke Your Trust, and Yes, That’s a Good Thing

  1. Every morning, I wake up in my house, or a friends. What I say there isn't automatically broadcast to the world, or even other friends, I avoid photos. What do I expect to be open to everyone, loose demographics, sex and relative age, and what I look like. People don't need to know what I like, that's a private matter, my background that's a private matter, most contact information, is friends only, and sometimes even my friends shouldn't know who all my other friends are, let alone what we're talking about. Anything past these boundaries isn't helping anyone, these are the expectations that I wake up to, by default, in my corporeal life, and I'd expect these standards by default, at minimum, even more so in my virtual life.

    I also understand that the web is hardly a private medium, but there are ways to create enough of a hindrance and nuisance in accessing the data, that it isn't worth trying to break the privacy I do have.

    Like

  2. Jimminy, a) Facebook does give you some hindrance to that with privacy
    controls – they are perhaps the only service that does, and b) yes, I agree,
    the web is hardly a private medium. I wouldn't trust Facebook to be any
    more private. At least they're giving you the opportunity to try without
    fooling you that your data isn't really that private even if you try.

    I wouldn't compare Facebook to real life – it's still the web. Use it to
    create real life relationships, then you can use that trust in real life to
    share private information. Unless you're 100% sure where your data is going
    on Facebook I wouldn't trust your data will remain private on the service.

    Like

  3. Jesse, of course they provide you with hindrances, but there are numerous other sites that at least take that private info and hide it, without having you go through several levels and multiple pages of settings, should they be applauded for their granularity, certainly, but they could also reduce the granularity, by providing top-level settings, this would be good for regular users. However, one of the selling points was that Facebook was private and for your personal network, through the middle of 2007 at least, and they have had one of the best systems for securing users data, outside of a monetary agency, so the data really was private, without forcing someone through something that would be a PITA to access it, without privileges.

    Facebook is equal to real life relationships for the majority of their users, not the technorati. Having opened up all this data past what the standards are in real life is going in the wrong direction, and it's not going to make us more open, IMHO. It's going to get people in trouble who didn't know any better, and will be closed down by a large number of those who do.

    Like

  4. “Privacy is good. So is openness. Identity is good. Anonymity is not.”

    Jesse, don't you think there is a place for Anonymity? In many companies the Suggestion Box is a way to anonymously share thoughts feelings and suggestions without fear of reprisal for being honest.

    Like

  5. The data wasn't really that private though. Any one of your friends could
    find and share it with anyone they like. Anyone in your network could find
    and share it with anyone they like. Not just that, but photo albums and
    videos were available to your entire network by default. Entire groups were
    built around friends sharing drunk photos of their friends for all of
    Facebook to see. Your privacy is only an illusion – it was a disservice for
    Facebook to make it appear private, when it wasn't.

    Like

  6. Sure, but anyone in the real world can do the same, that doesn't mean it's connected to me, they can tell the story to anyone in the world, but if that person doesn't know me or have access to me, then that information is basically anonymized, and as such it is private. Having video and photo albums, IMO, shouldn't have been set to network, but I don't participate with video or photos, so it was a non-issue for me to begin with. Also, those groups your pointing out, I've never seen or heard of one.

    My privacy was never an illusion, I knew where the boundaries where and how to set them, before there weren't many options that needed to be modified to get a private experience, now if you want a private experience on the service you have to modify every setting, several dozen just for the basic application, and more for applications, which I don't agree with.

    Like

  7. Would all the FB users have signed up and recruited their friends to join on these terms?

    I suspect that many feel there has been a bait and switch deal here.

    And I suspect they were willing to be open and not anonymous because they thought they controlled who would see what they were saying.

    Make sure your views are reflected in the survey Comradity plans to share with sponsors of the Internet Privacy bill here: http://bit.ly/short_survey

    Katherine Warman Kern
    @comradity

    Like

  8. Personally, I don't think a whole lot has changed. Things are a bit more
    open than they used to, but most of the same privacy controls are in place
    as before, in fact, there is even more granularity than before. People
    still use it because it's still a useful service, not because they are
    forced to be there. I don't think that's bait and switch. Users are
    welcome to cancel or discontinue their accounts at any time.

    While you're pushing the “Internet Privacy Bill”, did you be sure to vote on
    the privacy terms when they were proposed as part of Facebook's Site
    Governance policy? Anyone had the opportunity to vote, and the policies
    would have been changed if enough people had voted against. Facebook even
    e-mailed users warning them the changes were there. Facebook has given
    ample notification and ample opportunity to debate the changes. The fact
    is, I think most people don't really care.

    See: http://www.facebook.com/fbsitegovernance?v=app_

    Like

  9. Jesse, If I were advising Facebook, I would tell them that assuming their customers don't care would be very risky. As in any relationship, people give the benefit of the doubt until the other party goes too far. As I understand it, the Boucher Internet Privacy bill essentially allows Facebook to assume if the customer gives them the right to use their information then they can share it with their affiliates. In other words, the consumer has to OPT OUT. Assuming customers aren't Opting out because they don't care would be a mistake. Based on the responses to our survey so far: people are increasingly uncomfortable with each of the progressive uses of their information. But, so far, no one who thinks No. 4 is OK.:
    1. How do you feel about your interaction with a site being collected as anonymous, personally unidentifiable data?
    2. How do you feel when that anonymous or personally unidentified data is used by a server (i.e., website)or shared with others servers/websites to make money?
    3. How do you feel about your interaction with a website being collected as data that is personally identified with you?
    4. How do you feel when a website shares data personally identified with you with partners or affiliates to make money?

    Like

  10. That bill would have to go after Google, Omniture, etc. if number 4 isn't
    okay either. Google is the biggest culprit of all in regards to sharing
    information with 3rd parties. Personally, I'm okay with 4 – I think the
    more people know about me, the better contextual advertising I get as I
    browse the web and the more relevant experience it becomes for me. I think
    it's a good thing.

    Like

  11. Since the change happened to me this morning, I have had to remove my Bio, blank out my favorite quotes, and remove 20 Pages from those that I “like”, because the altered privacy settings have NO way to hide or otherwise restrict that information any longer.

    In other words, now I can't share my likes with my friends anymore, because by forcing me to share them with the whole world, they've basically forced me to be the lowest common denominator of who I am and in what ways I can express myself on their site.

    No longer can I indulge in any sort of meaningful conversation on Facebook, because the conversation now might be entirely public. I have no way to know how my words will be used against me. I have no viable controls over who can see them.

    I can trust my friends. But since my system shifted today over to the new community pages system, I've discovered that I can't trust Facebook.

    Like

  12. I don't *want* “contextual advertising”. I don't *want* GMail to give me ads from competing brokers and financial newsletters when I read an email from my current broker. That's *way* beyond “not OK!”

    Like

  13. Jesse, I would really enjoy a piece by you on 1) why the federal state instituted the right to be free from illegal search and seizure, how that extended into the current policy of right to privacy, and 2) why personal privacy is good for a person, how that expectation of privacy affects their lifestyle, and how the internet fits in with that expectation, now that the internet plays a very large role in people's lifestyle.

    I'm curious to know what your understanding of the other side of the debate is.

    Like

  14. Jesse, I would really enjoy a piece by you on 1) why the federal state instituted the right to be free from illegal search and seizure, how that extended into the current policy of right to privacy, and 2) why personal privacy is good for a person, how that expectation of privacy affects their lifestyle, and how the internet fits in with that expectation, now that the internet plays a very large role in people's lifestyle.

    I'm curious to know what your understanding of the other side of the debate is.

    Like

  15. Since the change happened to me this morning, I have had to remove my Bio, blank out my favorite quotes, and remove 20 Pages from those that I “like”, because the altered privacy settings have NO way to hide or otherwise restrict that information any longer.

    In other words, now I can't share my likes with my friends anymore, because by forcing me to share them with the whole world, they've basically forced me to be the lowest common denominator of who I am and in what ways I can express myself on their site.

    No longer can I indulge in any sort of meaningful conversation on Facebook, because the conversation now might be entirely public. I have no way to know how my words will be used against me. I have no viable controls over who can see them.

    I can trust my friends. But since my system shifted today over to the new community pages system, I've discovered that I can't trust Facebook.

    Like

  16. Personally, I don't think a whole lot has changed. Things are a bit more
    open than they used to, but most of the same privacy controls are in place
    as before, in fact, there is even more granularity than before. People
    still use it because it's still a useful service, not because they are
    forced to be there. I don't think that's bait and switch. Users are
    welcome to cancel or discontinue their accounts at any time.

    While you're pushing the “Internet Privacy Bill”, did you be sure to vote on
    the privacy terms when they were proposed as part of Facebook's Site
    Governance policy? Anyone had the opportunity to vote, and the policies
    would have been changed if enough people had voted against. Facebook even
    e-mailed users warning them the changes were there. Facebook has given
    ample notification and ample opportunity to debate the changes. The fact
    is, I think most people don't really care.

    See: http://www.facebook.com/fbsitegovernance?v=app_

    Like

  17. Sure, but anyone in the real world can do the same, that doesn't mean it's connected to me, they can tell the story to anyone in the world, but if that person doesn't know me or have access to me, then that information is basically anonymized, and as such it is private. Having video and photo albums, IMO, shouldn't have been set to network, but I don't participate with video or photos, so it was a non-issue for me to begin with. Also, those groups your pointing out, I've never seen or heard of one.

    My privacy was never an illusion, I knew where the boundaries where and how to set them, before there weren't many options that needed to be modified to get a private experience, now if you want a private experience on the service you have to modify every setting, several dozen just for the basic application, and more for applications, which I don't agree with.

    Like

  18. The data wasn't really that private though. Any one of your friends could
    find and share it with anyone they like. Anyone in your network could find
    and share it with anyone they like. Not just that, but photo albums and
    videos were available to your entire network by default. Entire groups were
    built around friends sharing drunk photos of their friends for all of
    Facebook to see. Your privacy is only an illusion – it was a disservice for
    Facebook to make it appear private, when it wasn't.

    Like

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