Facebook announced Monday that it will allow more access for third-party developers, a move designed to open the door to potential revenue streams and help it hold off social network rivals like Twitter.
However, there are fears that the network may instead lift the lid on a Pandora’s Box full of personal information abuse.
“For the first time, we’re opening the core Facebook product experience — the stream — with the new Facebook Open Stream API (application programming interface),” wrote Ray C. He on the Facebook Developer’s Blog. “The home page design centralizes the stream of information that tells you what’s going on right now in the world around you. With the Facebook Open Stream API, users will be able to use applications to read and interact with their stream. As a Facebook developer, you’ll also be able to access the posts you’ve published into the stream and display them in your application, whether it’s on a mobile device, Web site or desktop.”
What does that mean for the everytday user? “Your stream will appear just as it does on Facebook.com and maintain the same privacy settings,” wrote Justin Bishop, a Facebook engineer. “We believe that the ability to see more and more of what is happening around you will lead to greater openness and transparency.”
Monday’s development comes just one week after a small number of Facebook users — approximately 655,000 out of 200 million worldwide — voted to approve new rules of governance replacing an old set of terms of service that had generated plenty of controversy for the social network. A February attempt to clarify an older version of the TOS left many with the impression that Facebook retained the rights to personal data even after members dropped their accounts. That met with a threat from the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, but Facebook relented.
EPIC had praised Facebook for its new governance rules, which it believed clamped down on third-party developer access to user info. Now, with Monday’s announcement, “I’m not sure what to think. We’re going to have to look at it more closely,” EPIC executive director Marc Rotenberg told TechNewsWorld. “Users don’t really understand how data flows to the developers. They only understand how what they post flows to other users.”
Facebook has created a new set of “extended permissions” between users and developers, Facebook Senior Platform Manager Dave Morin told TechNewsWorld, noting that understanding how their data will be used is key for successful user relationships with those developers.
“The user is effectively saying to developers, ‘It’s okay for you to access the stream as I know it on my page on Facebook,'” Morin explained.
“We did a bunch of work around the user experience specifically, so that the user experience in granting permission to these developers is a lot more clear. There’s a new visual design, there’s clearer wording to the user, and it actually shows them an example of what their stream would look like” with the new application, he noted.
That’s a first, as far as permission agreements go on the Web, claimed Morin.
Such advances could help clarify opt-in choices, which aren’t really valid if the user doesn’t fully understand what that developer can do with the information, Rotenberg pointed out.
For example, a user posting information about an upcoming trip to Paris might then receive unwanted travel-based advertising because he or she clicked “yes” to a new application, he hypothesized.
“I don’t think those choices are meaningful — that’s the problem,” continued Rotenberg. “If people knew what they were agreeing to and what was being transferred and for what purpose, then they could start making those choices.”
The Need to Friend Developers
More third-party apps may be coming down the pike for Facebook and its users, according to Bishop’s post. “In the coming months, you’ll be able to interact with your stream on even more Web sites and through more applications, in ways we’re only beginning to imagine.”
That will mean Facebook will have to figure out a way to strike the balance between greater access for developers — and the resulting potential for membership growth and revenue — and the privacy rights of its users.
“What they’ve been hoping for is obviously increasing their footprint in terms of people using the service,” ABI Research analyst Jason Blackwell told TechNewsWorld. “In terms of standard social networking, that has a certain appeal. But when you add features — through third-party apps — then you can appeal to a different base of customers. It adds value in terms of bringing more people into the fold.”
Additional members drawn by new apps can help Facebook hold off the staggering membership growth currently seen on Twitter, along with keeping perennial rival — and former No. 1 social network MySpace — in its rear-view mirror. However, sooner or later, Blackwell argues, those apps will have to start bringing in money.
“There certainly has to be a way where you could offer applications for sale that tie into Facebook, similar to iPhone apps,” he said. “I’m surprised they haven’t come up with something like that before. They could charge a small amount, similar to iPhone, and with the volumes of people who are using Facebook, you can get some significant revenue.”