Facebook Gets Another Tongue-Lashing From Privacy Advocates

As social networks strive to become mainstream, profitable businesses, they are bound to experience some growing pains. For Facebook, figuring out how to turn all the information its 400-million plus members are posting on the site into a steady revenue stream — without drawing complaints about violating those members’ privacy — is proving to be a major pain.

This issue has been haunting Facebook for months, and it jumped to the forefront again on Wednesday when the ACLU of Northern California joined nine other public advocacy groups in drafting a letter chastising Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for not doing enough to protect members’ privacy.

The letter came despite Facebook having made several changes to its privacy policies in recent weeks in response to both member complaints and questions about the issue emanating from the U. S. Congress.

Give Users Total Control

“We are glad to see that Facebook has taken steps in the past weeks to address some of its outstanding privacy problems,” the letter states. “However, we are writing to urge you to continue to demonstrate your commitment to the principle of giving users control over how and with whom they share.”

The letter lists six specific issues the groups want Facebook to address. Giving users total control over their information is the overriding theme of the list, though it also addresses restricting when and how advertisers or application developers access members’ information.

The fourth item on the list calls for providing users “control over every piece of information they can share via Facebook, including their name, gender, profile picture and networks.”

The letter also asks that Facebook’s instant personalization feature — which puts certain links and applications on users’ pages based on their personal profiles — be opt-in by default. Currently, users have to opt out of this feature to prevent having links or applications automatically placed on their page.

Finally, the letter requests that Facebook use an HTTPS connection for all interactions on the site to prevent hackers from accessing members’ information, in addition to giving members tools for exporting their information if they decide to leave Facebook for another social network.

We Heard You

Zuckerberg addressed members’ concerns about privacy issues in his blog on the Facebook site on May 26, roughly a month after Charles Schumer, the senior U.S. senator from New York, called for the drafting of federal guidelines for how social networks share members’ information with third parties.

“The number one thing we’ve heard is that there needs to be a simpler way to control your information,” Zuckerberg wrote. “We’ve always offered a lot of controls, but if you find them too hard to use then you won’t feel like you have control.”

Zuckerberg went on to say Facebook was introducing a single control button that would allow users to determine who could access their information — “everyone, friends of your friends or just your friends.”

Apparently, that wasn’t sufficient for the advocacy groups. Ultimately, however, Facebook may not need to satisfy those groups in order to achieve a suitable balance between member privacy and its ability to generate revenue.

These Services Are Not Free

“It’s not reasonable for people to expect that they will have complete control over their information,” Alan Webber, a partner with Altimeter Group, told TechNewsWorld. “We have been spoiled by the illusion that services like Facebook are free; they are not. The obvious — or in some cases not so obvious — trade-off for these services is that we provide information that is used for marketing purposes.”

Facebook needs to find the balance point between what information users are willing to trade for the service and what information Facebook needs to create enough revenue to sustain itself, Webber said.

“There has been some push-back and negative media for changes that Facebook has made to it privacy policies,” Webber noted. “Still, more people are joining and using Facebook than leaving. Unless its policies start causing s enough people to leave that it affects its revenue stream, I expect Facebook to continue along the general route it has taken.”

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