Facebook's privacy changes: When will it go too far (and will you even notice)?

Facebook may share user data with third party sites automatically. What happens when Facebook goes too far? Do users have the will to revolt?
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Much of what you need to know about Facebook's proposed privacy changes boils down to timing: Friday, 3:04 p.m. PDT. Why is the timing important? That's when you typically roll out news you don't want folks to pay a lot of attention to.

For instance, some companies have famously issued profit warnings on a Friday before a four-day July 4 weekend. The news cycle may have compressed or even disappeared, but for the average bear---the poor fellow who can't possibly keep up with Facebook's open site governance the news cycle exists. You sort of tune out on weekends.

So what's Facebook trying to downplay? Try a proposed privacy setting change where Facebook will share user data with external sites automatically. Perhaps it's an improvement to Facebook Connect that'll change your life. Or it's just creepy. In either case, here's the excerpt:

Pre-Approved Third-Party Websites and Applications. In order to provide you with useful social experiences off of Facebook, we occasionally need to provide General Information about you to pre-approved third party websites and applications that use Platform at the time you visit them (if you are still logged in to Facebook). Similarly, when one of your friends visits a pre-approved website or application, it will receive General Information about you so you and your friend can be connected on that website as well (if you also have an account with that website). In these cases we require these websites and applications to go through an approval process, and to enter into separate agreements designed to protect your privacy. For example, these agreements include provisions relating to the access and deletion of your General Information, along with your ability to opt-out of the experience being offered. You can also remove any pre-approved website or application you have visited here [add link], or block all pre-approved websites and applications from getting your General Information when you visit them here [add link].

In other words, the sharing with everyone move by Facebook makes a little more sense. Facebook will now share your data with a bunch of partners. It's Facebook Beacon done right (for Facebook).

Now back to the timing. Facebook's timing is notable and tells us more than we need to know about the proposed privacy changes.  On cue, all of the folks that pay attention to Facebook's privacy moves closely---TechCrunch, ReadWriteWeb, Louis Gray and Inside Facebook---rang the alarm bells. After all, do we really want to share information with sites screened by Facebook and not the user? And just as the oldest media trick would dictate, the hubbub was fierce on Saturday and Sunday and played out by Monday---just in time for you not to notice. Weekend revolutions don't quite work.

Bottom line: Most folks---you know the ones that are sharing every detail of their lives with everyone on the Web when Facebook changed its settings the last time---will never opt out of the sharing with third party sites. Facebook's privacy setting are open and in sort-of-kind-of English, but the frequent changes mean that most users won't know what's going on.

Your data will be shared with sites Facebook chooses. Just trust Facebook and everything will be just swell.

The big question here is what happens when Facebook pushes too far. Will people deactivate accounts? I've been a click away three times in recent months, but have refrained. I wonder how many other people have also thought about nuking their Facebook account. At some point, Facebook will push too hard. It's a matter of "when" not "if."


Editorial standards