Firms need caution working with Facebook

With Facebook's constantly changing privacy policies, businesses have to "be careful" when entering into partnerships with the social-networking site, say industry watchers.
Written by Kevin Kwang, Contributor

While recognizing that Facebook as a platform to communicate with customers is "too big to avoid", a Singapore-based lawyer urged caution for companies looking to utilize the social-networking site for commercial use.

This comes after Facebook faced backlash from users for its proposed changes to its privacy policy over the weekend. This involved allowing a list of "pre-approved" third-party Web sites to access user data from Facebook, such as names, profile pictures, gender, user IDs and friend connections, while the person is logged into the social-networking Web site.

Mark Lim, head of intellectual property of media and entertainment at local law firm Tan Peng Chin, said that the way Facebook sets up its privacy policy's terms and conditions is a source of concern due to its constant changes.

He told ZDNet Asia in a phone interview that companies would have to "be aware of the potential pitfalls and have a clear understanding of what the partnership entails" when entering into business with the social media organization.

A senior analyst for social computing at Forrester Research, Augie Ray, agreed with Lim. In his e-mail, he noted that potential Facebook partners "would be smart" to observe the social-networking site's reaction to user feedback, in order to assess the potential benefits and risks of participating.

However, he did credit the social media site for soliciting user feedback regarding its next policy change, and "not repeating the mistakes" made when it introduced the ill-fated Beacon project, which posted user information online without permission.

Facebook's director of policy communications, Barry Schnitt, assured that the company is "committed to a level of openness and transparency around our policies that is unmatched by any other Internet service".

Responding to ZDNet Asia's queries, Schnitt in his e-mail pointed out that the blog post addressing the proposed changes "had been viewed more than 4 million times". The company had also sent "more than 400 million updates to users' inboxes" to notify people of the changes and to "encourage" them to comment.

"Even with the addition of the press coverage, we've received only about 150 comments [on Tuesday] in this section. Yes, many of these comments are critical, but it's hardly an overwhelming response," he said.

However, ZDNet Asia discovered another blog post by Facebook's deputy general counsel, Michael Richter, which also mentioned the proposed changes. Here, user comments had reached 1,160 by press time. Ray picked up on this, too, saying comments posted to Facebook are "running quite negative" about this change.

When asked to clarify on the proposed changes, Schnitt said it was important to understand that the features mentioned in the blog posts will be "part of a limited pilot", and that the test set will be "just a handful of trusted sites". He added that any pre-selected third-party Web site partner will be "required to provide an easy and prominent method for users to opt out directly from their Web site". The partner will also have to "delete the user's data" if the user chooses to opt out.

"Further, among other requirements, the partner will need to specify in writing to Facebook the data they will access and explain how they will use it," Schnitt elaborated.

Therein lays the problem, said Ray. Rather than institute an opt-in option for users, Facebook is going the opposite direction of making it an opt-out rule, which is similar to the Beacon project, he noted.

Ray's sentiment is reflected in the flak generated by user comments.

From among the 1,160 postings, one U.S.-based user, Traci Miller, who has been on Facebook since July last year, posted a comment saying: "I'm not fond of this opt-out idea. In essence, Facebook is forcing us to give out information without asking us first, therefore taking away the 'control' we're supposed to have and just giving us a semblance of control that isn't actually there. By the time we choose to opt out, our information has already been given to third parties without our [knowledge]."

Singapore-based user Lim Chih-Yang, whom ZDNet Asia interviewed, said that while he does not understand fully what Facebook's privacy policies are, "as a social-networking site, [it] should not allow pre-approved partner sites to access my information without my explicit agreement".

He added that the company should do more to clarify its privacy policies, and be "explicit" as to what information can be accessible by "my friends, partner sites, strangers and even Facebook itself".

When quizzed why the social media site is embarking on this potentially controversial move, Schnitt replied that Facebook Connect has enabled "new and great user experiences" across the Web, such as sharing a song found on a Facebook Connect-enabled site by linking it back to their Facebook page. However, he noted that these friends will then have to log on to the music site to access the content, a "clunky" transition he termed a "user experience problem", which the company is trying to solve.

Ultimately, how Facebook and its partner companies emerge from this new round of proposed policy changes will depend on "how [Facebook] uses the feedback they are receiving", said Ray.

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