Facebook gets a little too personal

'Instant Personalization' has turned into an instant privacy headache for Facebook. Even the US Senate is complaining about it.

When you're a social network with tens of millions of users and you've got the attention of the US Congress, that's almost never a good thing. And so it goes with Facebook and its naked attempt to become the central repository of consumer preferences on the Web (see "What's to like about Facebook's 'Like' Button?").

That bit of news is not sitting well with four US Senators, who have called for Facebook to roll back some of its recent changes to how it shares your information with the world.

Among the changes Facebook recently made is that even more of your information is now publicly accessible to anyone -- such as your current city, hometown, education, work, likes, interests, and friends. The pages that you "Like" become part of your public profile, accessible to anyone else who views the pages you've "Liked," even if you don't know them from Adam.

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Kurt Opsahl notes, Facebook introduced this concept using the innocuous topic of "cooking." Who wouldn't want to be known as a fan of cooking? Unfortunately, the same rules apply to more controversial pages you might also like:

"Previously, you could list "cooking" as an activity you liked on your profile, but your name would not be added to any formal "Cooking" page. (Under the old system, you could become a "fan" of cooking if you wanted). But now, the new Cooking page will publicly display all of the millions of people who list cooking as an activity.

"Cooking is not very controversial or privacy-sensitive, and thus makes for a good example from Facebook's perspective. Who would want to conceal their interest in cooking? Of course, the new program will also create public lists for controversial issues, such as an interest in abortion rights, gay marriage, marijuana, tea parties and so on."

You might well want to tell the world you're an unrepentant tea bagger or that you rock your afternoons with a spliff and the Bob Marley channel on Pandora. Or you might just want to share that info with a few select friends and leave the other 400 million Facebookers out of it. No can do, compadre. The way Facebook is set up now, it's all or nothing, in or out. You share everything with the world, or you share nothing at all.

Don't get me wrong. I use Facebook all the time. And I probably share too much about myself. But that doesn't mean you should.

It also irks me that we're being told these changes to Facebook are somehow beneficial to us. I don't see it. It's very clear to me how sharing more information about our preferences benefits Facebook; it allows them to create larger, more targeted ad campaigns and make more money. How they benefit anyone else is a mystery.

Then there's this lovely quote from Elliot Schrage, vice president of global communications, marketing and public policy for Facebook. In response to a reporter's question, Schrage said the following, which I'm guessing he'll soon regret:

"Facebook is all about sharing information," he said. "Sharing information is, at some level, antithetical to secrecy, antithetical to the idea of privacy. We believe that we bridge the divide between sharing and privacy through the vehicle of [user] control."

So, in case you missed it: Facebook = sharing information = antithetical to privacy. Just so we're clear.

Dear Mr. Schrage:

Just because I share some information does not mean I give up my right to keep other information private. I share many opinions and many of the goofy things I write, often with near or total strangers. But there are things I don't share with these people -- like, say, my social security number, my medical history, or that really embarrassing thing that happened to me in 4th grade. The way Facebook is set up now, though, my "user control" consists of either sharing everything or nothing -- and, oh, by the way, the default is to share everything. Thanks for that.

I predict Facebook is going to have to back down yet again, in Beacon-style fashion, from this scheme. It can't happen soon enough.

No, Dan Tynan will not reveal that embarrassing thing that happened to him in grade school, even if you do offer him $5,000 and an Apple iPad. But he will embarrass himself in countless ways on his geek humor site, eSarcasm.

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