Facebook: What the vocal minority wants users to consider

Bill Reddy: Should average users care anything about how Facebook shares and monetizes their information? Let's take a look at some major objections to using the largest social network.

Guest editorial by Bill Reddy

As Facebook rolls out its latest set of privacy changes, the largest social network is being hammered with criticism from many angles.  Leo Laporte shunned it in favor of donating to Diaspora (an open-source project) and was joined in the quitting exercise by several prominent bloggers, various CEOs and leaders in the web industry, Google employees, and groups like "Quit Facebook Day".  Criticizing its privacy and information sharing policies have been extensively covered in popular media lately.

But should the average user care anything about how Facebook shares and monetizes their information?  Let's take a look at some major objections to using the largest social network.

By Default, Facebook Shares Too Much

Facebook's future success can in part be forecasted by public connections between people, groups and businesses.  It was predictable that information sharing would be very strongly encouraged.  While it is an opt-in service (you chose to sign up right?), with few laws to guide Facebook, not all of its settings are opt-in.

Recent actions such as making personal information public by default (hometown, name, friends list, networks, photos), along with forcing many activities to be public-only, have caused many to be wary.  The "Instant Personalization Pilot Program" (Yelp, Pandora, Microsoft Docs.com) should have been opt-in but was enabled by default.

What many users also do not know is that applications they use (eg: Farmville)  have access to a large portion of all of their data (ReadWriteWeb).

For the average user:  Facebook is a business that makes money by knowing more about you, sharing that with advertisers, developers (including popular Facebook applications) and other partners, and then gradually making the individual to business connections more meaningful over time.  You have the option to limit sharing, but not to eliminate sharing entirely.

Anything Shared on Facebook can be Public

The LA Times recently ran a story about a Canadian woman who lost her disability benefits due to a Facebook photo.  The story in short:  woman suffers severe depression, gets disability, someone posts a photo of her having fun at one event, woman is depressed before/after event but the insurance benefits are cancelled due to that photo.

Or how about the various burglary stories due to "I'm not home" status updates?  Mostly it's an unscrupulous friend, or a friend of a friend.  Or how some private messages were sent to the wrong people.  Or how private chats were exposed to family and friends due to a software bug.  Yes, you had to follow a specific path to see someone else's chats, but this was a non-trivial bug.

For the average user:  Assume that anything, yes anything, on Facebook could be public.

A good warning from SmartMoney:  "Seemly innocuous data, such as a birthday, a mother's maiden name or a favorite pet's name is enough for hackers and identity thieves to do serious damage".  Not only hackers, but advertisers and insurance companies are also interested in your information.  New services like ReputationDefender allow you to monitor your online identity.

Next: More objections»

Privacy Settings Too Complicated

Whether by intent or inertia, Facebook's privacy settings have become a bit of a mess.  Some settings like who can see your photos are buried in album-specific settings.  Google "how to fix facebook privacy settings", and you'll get the "5", "8", "72" ways to fix articles.  Some are related to the most recent version of privacy settings, and some are out of date.  And since Facebook rolls out changes gradually (and without a public version number), a portion of users will not find the "right" advice to fix their settings.

Even if a user has changed their settings to a comfortable privacy level, next week's changes might undo some of that, requiring users to constantly recheck their settings.

For the average user:  Changes are coming from Facebook that will simplify privacy settings.  It will be easier to review all of your settings.  And according to Mashable, there will protection from future changes, essentially a "new features or changes have to follow my current settings" button.

Users are their Own Worst Enemy

An overarching concern is many people don't have the time, awareness or simply don't care about how Facebook uses their information.  And while you may be using Facebook responsibly, a friend may post something you are not ready to reveal (this is one such story).

This is a legitimate concern for any social network, especially since novice users don't always connect real life principles with how one behaves online.

For the average user:  Stay connected with people you can trust, and relegate others to other forms of more private communication (eg: email, text).  We're living in an increasing public era, and our private lives require protection.

Predatory Advertising

Make no mistake, a great deal is known about you already.  For most users, your ISP knows which sites you visit.  There's Google history, YouTube history, Amazon purchases, Ebay, website tracking, etc.  For a small fee, people finder sites can provide someone's address, phone, work history, education history, criminal history, bankruptcies, and relationship status (martial status, divorce(s)).

If you use a credit card, bank card, store card (eg: Costco), your purchase patterns are closely tracked.

As Facebook is connected with more and more websites, advertisers can target you very specifically.  And Facebook might be working with advertisers in ways you don't know.

For the average user:  Advertisers are merging offline and online databases to get a better picture of you and how to market products to you in very sophisticated and potentially predatory ways.  Facebook makes it easier across various websites.

Can Mark be Trusted?

Some might say this is the biggest one.  As goes the boss, so goes the company.  Zuckerberg's occasional cavalier statements/gaffes have been the fuel to this fire.

For the average user:  You don't need to care about who Mark Zuckerberg is.  But his company needs to make money, and their most important asset is your information, activity and connections.

The question is, can you trust Facebook with your (hopefully) mostly public information?  Can you trust Facebook to put your privacy first even at the price of losing revenue?  Can you trust Facebook's technical competence in protecting your data?  A vocal professional minority think you cannot.  But others like Mark Cuban say "who cares?".

Bill Reddy (@_br) is an independent consultant working primarily in the SF Bay Area by day, an aspiring author and founder of early-stage startup Tumblcart.com by night. Previously, he was a cofounder at Nibea.com. He was also a minority partner at Beacon Analytics, which was acquired by Hackett in 2004. Bill has worked in advisory, management and technical capacities at many Fortune 500 firms over the past 14 years, helping his clients save hundreds of millions of dollars. Bill is obsessed with patiently understanding the core reasons & assumptions that drive people or companies to do anything. You can find him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter.

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