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Facebook's Bossy, Cagey Privacy Maneuvers

Facebook's Bossy, Cagey Privacy Maneuvers

Facebook has taken a keen interest in user privacy lately, for better or for worse. It's required users to review their own privacy settings following a system revamp. Privacy from app developers, though, is another matter. Meanwhile, Apple gives 1,000 apps the boot, Richard Branson gives the world a look at his new ride, and Droid gives the iPhone a sharp knee.

In making a move meant to enhance user privacy, Facebook went about things in a kind of intrusive way this week. As you know, the site started out as a college-kids-only social network, and the content you'd find on Facebook at that time reflected the demographic in all its boozy glory.

But now Facebook's for everyone, and it's a serious enterprise, so the company felt compelled to give a stern lecture to all of its members, regardless of age, reminding them to grow up and review their privacy settings, lest the photos of their silly antics with a bottle of Captain Morgan be exposed to the world at large.

Really, it's not just a reminder to look at the settings, it's a requirement. This week, users who sign on to Facebook are greeted with notices to review the new privacy options Facebook set up. If you ignore the notices enough times, you get locked out of your account until you go through the motions.

Those new settings include things like the elimination of regional networks and the ability to set more specific privacy settings for individual bits of content. These are useful adjustments, probably aimed at making Facebook more attractive for use in business settings, where sites like LinkedIn are perceived as being more for professional networking. I suppose they could save a handful of people from missing out on a job opportunity due to a few ill-advised poses -- those who are careless enough not to adjust their settings on their own accord before looking for a job.

However, there does seem to be an implied message from Facebook that you need to be saved from your own social ineptitude. If you're annoyed by that, well, it's certainly not the first time the site has irked users with a slight makeover, and no matter how much grumbling goes on, Facebook just keeps growing. What are you going to do, go back to Friendster? Or hang out with those scary MySpace kids? Orkut? Bebo?

Or do you think you're gonna abandon online society completely and cultivate only important relationships among a small group of people with whom you spend actual time on a regular basis? Ha! You'll be back playing "Dope Wars" in a week.


Listen to the podcast (12:12 minutes).

Privacy Is Relative

Did I mention that the people who created "Dope Wars" get to learn a lot of interesting things about you? Same goes for the makers of any other game or Facebook application you decide to use. Hey, even if you never use third-party apps, the ones that your friends use may still give app developers a window on things about you.

All the clamor going on about the forced review of your Facebook privacy settings has to do with what other Facebookers can see about you. But the site hasn't done much to address the issue of privacy in terms of what Facebook application developers can know.

Now, users' entire profiles -- and everything their friends have posted, and their friendships -- get pushed off to application developers, according to Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

And the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Kevin Bankston remembers that there was once an option for users who didn't want their info being shared with app developers over the Facebook Platform every time one of their friends added an app. That button, he said, is now gone, which certainly doesn't feel very private at all.

Just Look at Yourself

It's no coincidence that the ads you see online often have a lot to do with the kinds of sites you like to visit. No, it's not that the whole world loves all the same weird junk you're into, it really is just you. But sometimes the Internet knows who you are -- personally.

Major search engines like Yahoo track some of your behavior while you're signed into their service. They can't see through your webcam (probably), but they can tell what you're clicking on and how much time you spend wherever you go, and they remember that for a very long time. The point is to figure exactly what kind of a person would go to all of those strange little corners of the Web, and what an advertiser might be able to sell to that sort of person.

Nothing against good old-fashioned capitalism, but all this behavioral tracking is seriously very creepy if you think about it too much, so Yahoo has done something similar to what Google did a few weeks ago. It's offering a dashboard so users can see what Yahoo knows about them. They can also adjust some of their information regarding what kind of ads they're prefer to see. So if you love dancing mortgage guy and hate those Verizon network drones, you no longer have to leave it all up to fate.

Let's be clear, though: Yahoo isn't doing this just to be nice. Privacy is becoming a big concern in D.C. -- several congresspeople are cooking up broad legislation on the matter, and just this week the FTC held a roundtable discussion to talk about the benefits and risks of things like collecting, using and retaining consumer data, what consumers expect, and what info is disclosed to them.

Rather than antagonize lawmakers and get smacked in the face by new laws that cripple their business models, online giants like Google, Yahoo and Facebook are making gestures to at least appear a little more private, while creating new opportunities for themselves to make a buck.

Getting Personal

For Verizon and AT&T, getting into the holiday spirit means starting a bare-knuckle, mud-slinging ad war for the hearts and minds of smartphone shoppers. It started off as a simple comparison of network coverage, but things just keep getting nastier. In fact, Verizon recently threw a below-the-belt punch in an effort to deride the iPhone's very manhood.

A new commercial for the Verizon Droid smartphone calls AT&T's golden boy a "tiara-wearing digitally clueless beauty pageant queen," and a "precious porcelain figurine of a phone." Pardon me, but I feel the urge to go out and buy a Hummer to prove something to someone.

The Droid, according to the ad, "rips through the Web like a circular saw through a ripe banana," which makes me feel vaguely insecure about carrying one around in my pocket.

OK, so it's not quite as sexist as a late-80s beer commercial. But is it such a great marketing idea to shout "masculine" and characterize your rival as a girly phone? What if a buyer of the feminine persuasion might like a Droid -- are you saying it's just too manly for that kind of customer? Perhaps she should go for the dumb blonde model?

On the other hand, perhaps the ad is a complete success. The point of advertising is to capture people's attention, and here I am talking about it. Let's move on.

That Good, Huh?

It became clear this week that the bouncers working Apple's App Store club are not to be trifled with. One company learned that lesson the hard way, and it looked something like a certain scene from the movie "Casino" involving a hammer and a circular saw.

The whole thing apparently started when a reader of the iPhoneography blog, Patrick Timney, wrote in to say that a lot of the user reviews for apps developed by a company called "Molinker" seemed very similar -- both in how incredibly positive they were about the apps in question, and in how poorly the reviews were written. The blog and the reader contacted Apple's top marketer, Phil Schiller, and a week later Schiller responded by saying Molinker's apps had been 86ed from the store -- all 1,000 of them.

If this really is a case of astroturfing at the App Store, it's probably not the first time it's happened, but this is definitely one of Apple's more drastic reactions to address the problem. Possibly the most drastic. Perhaps the fact that Molinker was called out by an outside source compelled Apple to make a strong statement this time around. There's that, plus there's how widespread and obvious the fake reviews appeared to be, according to Rob Walch, host of Today in iPhone.

Cutting 1,000 apps loose over some fake reviews definitely pounds home the message that if devs try to screw around with Apple, they'll get cut up real bad. That might be reassuring, at least to the honest developers out there. Apple might be frustrating and opaque when it comes to its app approval process, Walch said, but at least it runs a store where you don't see broken software, malware, or grossly fraudulent reviews.

iTunes to Sing Lala?

Apple could buy a few small countries right now if it really wanted to -- it's sitting on an enormous pile of cash. But buying a small country wouldn't do a damn thing to help it sell more iPhones, so forget about it.

Instead it's bought Lala.com, an online music provider that keeps its customers' songs on a cloud server. That means they can access their tunes through a variety of Internet-enabled devices, not just ones that happen to have the dozens of gigabytes needed to carry a big collection of downloaded music.

Cupertino ponied up an undisclosed amount -- I'm hearing everything from $3 million to $80 million -- for the online streaming music system. That could mean big changes are in store for iTunes, iPods and iPhones.

In the past, Steve Jobs has resisted taking iTunes down the road toward music streaming; he's insisted customers want to buy and download music rather than pay a monthly fee. That's not necessarily true for everyone; lots of music streaming services have popped up, and though none is as big as iTunes, many of them make a living.

Lala could pave the way for iTunes in the cloud -- not necessarily abandoning the old buy-and-download model. Maybe Apple is going to let users access and stream all the iTunes music they've ever bought through any computer or Web-connected iPhone or iPod.

Seems as though Apple would be more than capable of building such a system itself without having to buy up an outsider, though. Maybe Lala has some big brains Apple wants or some big deals it wants to get grandfathered into.

For now, just like Lala's undisclosed price tag, what Apple intends to do with its new possession is a matter of guesswork -- at least until iTunes 10 comes out.

I Want My Vevo

A new site has launched what could turn out to be the MTV of the online generation -- by that I mean something like the real MTV of the 80s and 90s, before Tila Tequila and the Road Rules crew took over 20 hours a day.

Vevo comes with serious backing from the music industry: Universal, Sony and EMI are behind it, and Google has chipped in with the video technology. The money comes from advertising. No big surprise there, since music videos themselves are essentially advertisements.

Of course, some of them are rather good, and it's sometimes a little hard to find them on the Web these days. YouTube used to be the go-to place, but music companies didn't like that so much, and Warner Brothers even went so far as to demand that Google pull all its content from YouTube's servers.

Now there's Vevo, and it works pretty much like any other legitimate video site. Search for a song or artist directly, or browse through various collections of top videos and playlists. Then sit through a short ad for a camera or dog food or something, and your video starts.

That's the way it's supposed to work, anyway, except that Vevo had a few hiccups on launch day. Some users had trouble accessing it, which came as no surprise to Vevo -- it tweeted that it was having some problems the night before. Not quite as triumphant an arrival as the landing of MTV's Moon Man in 1981.

A Different Sort of Launch

It used to be that if you really wanted to fly into space, you had to get a graduate degree in something ridiculously hard like aerospace engineering, then have an exceptional military career, and even then, if you had some minor physical flaw like less-than-perfect eyesight, you'd be out of the boat.

Now, all you have to do is get really rich, because you can buy a flight to space on Richard Branson's new private spacecraft, the VSS Enterprise. Branson's company, Virgin Galactic, unveiled the vehicle this week after years of studying the feasibility of private space travel.

The Enterprise looks sort of like three Gulfstream jets conjoined at the wings. The middle cabin gets a piggyback ride most of the way up, then blasts into suborbital space to give passengers a few minutes of weightlessness, as well as a view of the curvature of the Earth.

Sounds like a really good time, if you can afford it -- tickets go for $200,000 a head. Even though flights won't take off until 2011, ticket agents are standing by, and they say they're optimistic about filling those seats in the Enterprise.


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