Facebook privacy: broken by design

The big story of the week is the Facebook IPO, the largest public offering since Google. Facebook makes a huge profit off the social network of millions. Unfortunately, I think Facebook does this by exploiting private, personal details.

About a month ago, I bid farewell to Facebook. My outrage was over Facebook’s support for CISPA legislation. More broadly, my problem with Facebook comes from its approach to privacy.

It’s easy to see that Facebook privacy is a total failure. A Google search for Facebook privacy settings claims 700 million links. Why should it take that many documents to explain how to maintain control over your privacy? And Wikipedia’s Criticism of Facebook has 13 sections on “privacy concerns”.

But the more I think about it, the more I realize that privacy in Facebook is a contradiction. Facebook wants to reassure its users that it cares about privacy. In fact, you can’t view most personal updates and pictures from your friends and family until you sign up for a Facebook account. And I agree that this helps protect Facebook against pedophiles and other criminals that essentially killed MySpace.

But I don’t think that Facebook is altruistic when it comes to privacy. Facebook privacy is really a very clever marketing strategy that helped Facebook to grow: to see personal information, you have to sign up for a Facebook account. And remember that Facebook’s real customers aren’t you and me. It’s the advertisers, and they are paying for personal information about Facebook users. What music do you Like? What restaurants do you Like? What do you Like to do with your spare time? What phone do you Like to use to post on Facebook? All so that Facebook can tailor specific ads for you.

So there’s a fundamental conflict between the needs of its paying advertisers and the desires of its users. And this will only get worse once Facebook must answer to Wall Street.

In short, Facebook privacy is broken by design.

I wish this were only about ads. If so, I could simply not Like anything on Facebook, and simply post tiny details for my close friends and family. But when Facebook pledged its support for CISPA, I realized that Facebook has little respect for its users. If CISPA is enacted, a government employee can ask – without court order – for personal information from Facebook or other online services. Suppose you post that you’re frustrated that a police officer just stopped you for speeding on such-and-so street, and then the police start to harass you for posting about their speed trap. Or if you post pictures of your brand new car, and a tax agent decides to scrutinize your tax records. Or you post how TSA screening makes you feel uncomfortable, so the TSA singles you out for porno screening for the rest of the year.

Some may think that I’m just being paranoid. I simply want to be in control over what is private and what is public. And I have little trust for what Facebook will do with my private information.

I suppose I will have to login again to Facebook, since too many close friends and family use Facebook to post important personal news. But when I do, I’m going to really limit what I share, because I think that Facebook and I have very different views on privacy.

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