My advice to Facebook: Ask permission, dammit

Facebook got into this mess because it used our information without asking nicely. Time for this social network to learn some manners.

Lord knows there's been a lot of debate about Facebook's attitude toward its 400+ million members' privacy. The network has weathered a s***storm of criticism from all corners, while a handful of largely asinine things have been written in defense of Facebook (most of which boil down to "Hey, if you didn't want to make this stuff public you shouldn't have put it on Facebook," which I'll get to in a moment.)

Today, uber-blogger Robert Scoble leaps in with the question "When do you throw a CEO’s privacy under the bus?" His somewhat strained point: The same people who are up in arms about Facebook and privacy (ie, us media types) have no qualms publishing the private email replies of CEOs like Steve Jobs.

(That premise is a bit undercooked -- I've been highly critical of Facebook and have yet to publish any private emails from Steve. But I digress.)

[ See also: Facebook's privacy controls are seriously broken ]

Scoble believes people who quote Steve Jobs' emails online are violating Jobs' privacy. Well, maybe. The only person who'd really know that is Steve Jobs. And I suspect Jobs is savvy enough to understand that when he replies to a question from a member of the public, his response is also going to become public.

Scoble make a big deal about how he'd never quote an email without the sender's permission, then (having gained permission) proceeds to quote CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a rather bland admission that Facebook has "made a bunch of mistakes" and is planning to announce some changes this week.

(Given that several other sources have already signaled Facebook is ready to throw in the towel some time this week, this news is really less than earth shattering. But again, I digress.)

In practical terms, Scoble is wrong: email doesn't enjoy the same protections as other communications like personal letters or phone calls. Technically speaking, most email is about as private as a post card; unless it's encrypted, anyone who encounters the message along the way can read it and repeat it. And once messages hit the inboxes of their recipients, it's really up to them what they do with it. Just like when someone shares some juicy gossip with you. Unless they say "don't tell anyone else," it's kind of up to you who else you share it with.

Scoble has the right idea, though: Ask permission first. Had Facebook only taken that simple step -- with changes it made last December to the information Facebook makes public by default, or the "instant personalization" features it rolled out in April -- it would have avoided the well-deserved pummeling it has received over the last few weeks.

The problem is not that Facebook shared that information. It's that Facebook didn't ask nicely first. And now it's going to regret its lack of manners.

Of course, some people believe that by sharing your information on Facebook you've given up any claim to keeping it private. They argue that, by definition, that information is already public. Well, yes and no. In truth, you've chosen to make that information selectively public. Some people know it, and some people don't.

That's the way privacy is supposed to work in the real world. It's selective by definition. The only things that are truly, purely private are the things only you know. Everything else ends up getting shared with someone -- whether it's your doctor, your lawyer, your spouse, or your 3,245 closest friends on Facebook. But that doesn't make that information less private. 

Take the information you should never post on Facebook (or elsewhere) unless you want to be used as an ATM by identity thieves: Your Social Security Number, your date of birth, and your mother's maiden name. Everyone outside of LifeLock's Todd Davis would agree that these are stupid things to share online. Right?

However, if you want to apply for a job, pay your taxes, get health insurance, see your doctor, rent an apartment, or qualify for a credit card, you have to release this information. Does it make this information any less private? No. It's still your private information. You've just selected who gets to see it. (Though in this example, the Federal government and the credit bureaus made that selection for you.)

Your medical information is private -- but not to your doctor. You may have birthmarks or tattoos that only a select few people know about -- unless you're a stripper. Your yearly income is no secret to your boss or Uncle Sam, but it's unlikely your coworkers or neighbors know how much you make. All of that information is public to some and private to everyone else.

That is precisely how Facebook started out. You got to choose who saw your stuff. But it's become increasingly harder to limit your exposure as Facebook makes more and more "private" things public. That's why I (and others) have called it a "bait and switch."

That's a problem, but it can be fixed. And the fix starts when Zuckerberg et al stop assuming that just because people post something to their Facebook profiles means they're OK with sharing it with the world.

So anyone who says you've given up your privacy rights because you shared something intended only for your Facebook BFFs is an idiot. And, please, feel free to quote me on that. You have my permission.

Author Dan Tynan loves to receive email from fans, but be warned that he might quote you unless you tell him not to. (He is, after all, an award-winning journalist.) Catch his snarky side at eSarcasm (Geek Humor Gone Wild) or follow him on Twitter: @tynan_on_tech.

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