Privacy concerns to be topic of all-hands meeting at Facebook today

Facebook is expected to hold an all-hands meeting today to discuss privacy concerns, responding to a perception that Facebook has little respect for its users' privacy.

Facebook, which has taken a PR beating (again) for showing a perceived lack of respect for user privacy (again), is apologizing (again) for doing a poor job at communicating with its members (again). To make sure it doesn't happen again (again), the company plans to hold an all-hands meeting this afternoon, according to inside sources who tipped off the All Facebook blog.

The internal meeting comes two days after Elliot Schrage, Facebook's VP for public policy, conducted a written Q&A from New York Times readers on the Bits blog. The post featured some pretty frank questions from readers who clearly see a financial motive for Facebook increasingly pushing the limits with revisions to its privacy policy.

More importantly, the exec was asked a simple question about why everything is set up for opt-out instead of opt-in, forcing people to go into the settings to re-adjust their privacy controls. Schrage's answer, while truthful and honest, was also borderline arrogant - something that could hurt the company if readers (like me) perceive that to be taken in a "you don't have to be a member if you don't like our rules" kind of way. His short answer: "Everything is opt-in on Facebook. Participating in the service is a choice." Another answer to another related question: "Joining Facebook is a conscious choice by vast numbers of people who have stepped forward deliberately and intentionally to connect and share."

He's right. And not participating in the service is a choice, too. I mean, I made a conscious choice to join - and then leave - sites like AOL and MySpace. I can't help but repeat what I said in a post here last week: Repeated blunders around privacy that could have been solved with some simple communications could put Facebook at risk of heading down the paths of MySpace or AOL.

I almost wanted to think that the company was calling its meeting in response to my post - I know, I flatter myself - but Schrage's answers in the NYT Q&A tells me that that's not the case. For the life of me, I can't figure out why Facebook is so hell-bent on making its users go to this page or Like that page or otherwise go searching for the materials meant to protect them when Facebook has the means to instantly communicate with every one of its members - either by wall post or email. From one of his answers:

We will soon ramp up our efforts to provide better guidance to those confused about how to control sharing and maintain privacy. Anyone interested in these topics should become fans of the About Facebook Page and the Facebook Site Governance Page — two valuable sources of information that already provide regular updates to more than 8 million users. We will also expand the education information in our Privacy Guide to offer much more specific detail on these topics. Additionally, other upcoming announcements will dramatically improve how we communicate about change.

I certainly hope some of those other dramatic improvements involve reaching out to the members, instead of forcing them to seek out the information on their own.I know I've had to change my settings a few times on Facebook and have been forced to agree to things that I wasn't really sure about - but it wasn't until I saw this massive chart in the New York Times. One of the ways I gauge how shady and sneaky a company might be is to review its privacy policy from time to time. I haven't done that with Facebook in a really long time - but the NYT did. It's amazing to me that the NYT's Privacy Policy has grown from just over 1,000 words in 2005 to nearly 6,000 words today.

Props to the NYT for pointing out that that's about 1,300 words more than the U.S. Constitution. That sure is a lot of CYA text.