Facebook's privacy bait and switch

When it first arrived on the scene, Facebook's main appeal was how well it protected your personal information. Those days are long gone.

The firestorm over Facebook’s rapidly shrinking privacy protections shows no sign of abating, but you wouldn’t know it by listening to Facebook. According to them, the vast majority of users are totally sanguine with the social network’s increasingly generous data sharing policies – it’s just us cranks in the press who are bitching and moaning.

Ethan Beard, director of Facebook’s developer network, had this to say in an interview with Computerworld’s Sharon Gaudin:

"I think the response from users that we've seen from the products we launched at [Facebook's F8 developer conference late last month] has been quite positive. People are actively opting-in to engage with the social Web. The response from users speaks very, very loudly that they love what we're doing. I think there's a lot of other talk that's not coming from users necessarily. There's been a lot of interest from the media, from organizations and officials. But to be honest, the user response has been overwhelmingly positive."

Beard stopped short of accusing the media of inventing this controversy, but you know it’s what he was implying.

Meanwhile, the ever bubbly Robert Scoble thinks the privacy controversy is much ado about nothing.

"I have always set my Facebook to the most public setting possible. Whoa?!? Here’s the deal: I wish Facebook had NO PRIVACY AT ALL! That’s called the open web. I wish Google could index every word I write on Facebook. Hint, it can’t. The thing I hate about Facebook is that people who want to see my profile can’t. Even now only 5,000 of you can look at my Facebook profile. That’s lame. I want to live my life in public. Why? Because that way none of you can exploit me more than any other."

robert scoble naked (shudder)

Remember, this is a guy who wrote a book called “Naked Conversations” and promoted it by posing nude for publicity photos. Trust me, you don’t want to see Robert Scoble naked (unless your name is Mrs. Robert Scoble -- and even then I’m betting probably not). He’s the last human on the planet I’d ever consult about privacy issues. Frankly you’d get better advice from a stripper.

The fact is, Facebook has steadily – and quite deliberately – carved away at the privacy protections its service was originally founded upon. It has essentially created a bait-and-switch scam: promising one thing but delivering something entirely different.

IBM researcher Matt McKeon created an amazing graphic that shows in dramatic fashion just how much control Facebook has gradually assumed over its users’ information every year since 2005. 

The blue bits in the following screenshot represent how much of your information Facebook shared (and with whom) back in 2005. Back then, if someone wasn’t a member of your network (typically the place you lived or went to  school) they couldn’t see your profile or access much information about you at all.

matt mckeon facebook privacy 2005

Here’s the current state of Facebook information sharing today.

matt mckeon facebook privacy april 2010

Feeling blue yet?

In other words, if you joined Facebook in 2005, most of the stuff you thought you were sharing only with your closest college buddies is now being shared amongst the entire InterWebs.

Let me put it another way. Say you have a very rich, very generous friend. This friend owns many apartment buildings. One day he offers you the use of one of his buildings, free of charge, and encourages you to invite your friends to join you. It’s not exactly the Hugh Hefner Suite at the Palms, but hey, it’s a free apartment. There’s only one condition: He reserves the right to enter the unit as needed. He promises to not do it very often and give plenty of notice. If you don’t like it, of course, you’re free to move elsewhere.

The next year, the owner adds a new condition. Not only can he enter the apartment, he can also bring a few friends. Again, he won’t do it very often, and if you don’t like it you’re free to leave whenever you like.

The year after that, the owner reserves the right to enter the apartment on a regular basis and throw a huge party for all his friends. You and your friends are also invited, of course. Don’t like it? Well, you know how to find the door.

The next year the owner tells you he’s planning to throw parties pretty much all the time. And he’s told his friends they should feel free to go through all your stuff. You’ll be able to keep some of your stuff private by locking it in a closet, but the closet is small and hidden in a crawlspace, so you may have trouble finding it. But he assures you he’s only doing this because deep down inside he knows you really want him to let a bunch of strangers paw through your stuff, even if you’ve never said anything remotely like that. Also, he gets paid every time someone finds something of yours they like.

Is it time to move yet?

Yes, Facebook is free. Yes, it offers many unique and useful services, as well as a lot of useless dreck. Yes, it needs to generate revenue for these free services. But what Facebook is offering now isn’t what most of us signed up for. This isn’t the original agreement. It’s mutated, and not in a survival-of-the-fittest way -- more like a ‘slime mold that’s threatening to eat the earth’ kind of way. The future does not bode well.

Also: You want to live your life in public, Bob, you go right ahead. But please, spare us the pictures.

Author Dan Tynan blah blah Facebook blah blah Twitter blah blah blah temporary restraining order blah blah thrown out for lack of evidence. Follow his other shenanigans on Twitter (@tynan_on_tech) or his award-winning geek humor site, eSarcasm.

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