Follow Up: Facebook & Privacy

May 6th, 2010 by rubenr

My post a few days ago, Facebook’s Anti-Privacy Monopoly has gotten a lot of attention and I’ve received a lot of valuable Feedback, including from some employees over at Facebook.

To reiterate, I really do like Facebook. It’s a good product and an efficient platform for communication. And to me, personally, the privacy “issues” aren’t so bad as to outweigh the value I get from the site (though I’d still prefer more easily-used privacy settings and more control over certain things). Even the recent instant personalization is a feature I can see liking. I’ve turned it off mostly because of the all-or nothing approach to the privacy settings (I can see liking instant personalization with Yelp since I use both, but don’t really want to have to turn off instant personalization on all the other sites where I don’t want it).

What I’m really trying to do is get people to recognize the commercial nature of the relationship users have with Facebook, and to see the competitive consequences (and thus privacy consequences) of the way Facebook allows (or doesn’t allow) interaction with other websites.

A few people have pointed out that allowing FB users to share usernames and passwords is a BAD idea for Security (and thus also bad for Privacy). The idea is that if you get people too used to sharing their passwords with other sites, then they’ll be more likely to fall prey to phishing scams. That makes sense. Though it’d be interesting to look at some data to determine if that’s actually the case in practice. Login-sharing has been practiced across many websites for a while, and just because a site prohibits sharing of usernames and passwords, that doesn’t mean scammers will just stop trying to solicit them.

Regardless, the anti-competitive concerns I talked about in the earlier post don’t HAVE to be addressed via password sharing, as long as some authentication system allows for interacting and exporting user content much in the same way a third party could with a simple login. This could include some solutions such as xAuth or OpenID, or even a version of the Facebook API where FB doesn’t block Google’s Friend Connect or MySpace.

Spamming and Phishing
I’m also not in love with spammers. I referred to in my prior post. They tried to develop a platform for easily porting SN content from one site to another. There are also some accusations against them for spamming on FB. They’ve been blocked by FB (and to this day you can’t say “” on a FB wall post or comment, presumably that’s a pre-emptive attack against SPAM). I don’t know if is an evil spammer or a legitimate competitor, but I do know that when Twitter first got off the ground a couple of my friends signed up and accidentally spammed everyone in their GMail contact list with invites to join. It’s not impossible that something similar happened with’s initial roll out. Regardless, even without the spamming component, a legitimate service like what tries to do isn’t allowed to interact with FB under the current rules of use.

Privacy as Control
Some people have also pointed out that reducing the transaction costs associated with switching from FB to another service actually reduces privacy by spreading information around to more places. I’m actually less interested in promoting switching to other services completely and more interested in the promotion “niche” services (such as the photo-sharing example in my original post). I do think FB is here to stay as the dominant Social Network. But to the privacy point: My conceptualization of privacy on the Internent, and I think that of most others, is one of control. Some friends share more than I do, others feel comfortable sharing less. Just because information is more widely dissipated, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s less private if I’m sharing it with a service provider that I trust and that I choose.

I’ve also been told that I was pretty unbalanced against Facebook in my initial post. To that I’d say that I was trying to argue a point: that there are anti-competitive consequences to the way Facebook’s been operating. When advocating a position one tends to be more forceful than not with their language. The book chapter I referenced in the post takes a much more academic-toned look at the economic/privacy issues. On that note though, I do apologize for perpetuating a misquote of Mark Zuckerberg on my graphic, I’ve changed it to reflect what he really said. I encourage anyone who re-posted the graphic to link to the updated copy.

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