04 May 2010

The Privacy Policy of Facebook

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is an international non-profit digital rights advocacy and legal organization based in San Francisco, USA. It was founded in July 1990 by poet, essayist, cattle rancher and political activist John Perry Barlow and software developer, IT entrepreneur (Lotus, Second Life), investor and philantropst Mitchell Kapor. EFF is dedicated to civil rights in cyberspace and the medial self determination of its citizens. Even though the EFF mostly focusses on North America, a bureau has been opened in Brussels in Ferurary 2007 to better address European issues.

Now EFF has documented the evolution of Facebook's privacy regulations during the previous five years (cf. Facebook's Eroding Privacy Policy: A Timeline):
Since its incorporation just over five years ago, Facebook has undergone a remarkable transformation. When it started, it was a private space for communication with a group of your choice. Soon, it transformed into a platform where much of your information is public by default. Today, it has become a platform where you have no choice but to make certain information public, and this public information may be shared by Facebook with its partner websites and used to target ads.
Since 2005 there has been a significant shift away from privacy, as becomes clear when comparing Facebook's 2005 Privacy Policy (FPP) with the most recent one:
June 2005: No personal information that you submit to Thefacebook will be available to any user of the Web Site who does not belong to at least one of the groups specified by you in your privacy settings.

April 2010: When you connect with an application or website it will have access to General Information about you. The term General Information includes your and your friends’ names, profile pictures, gender, user IDs, connections, and any content shared using the Everyone privacy setting. ... The default privacy setting for certain types of information you post on Facebook is set to “everyone.” ... Because it takes two to connect, your privacy settings only control who can see the connection on your profile page. If you are uncomfortable with the connection being publicly available, you should consider removing (or not making) the connection.
Consequently, Facebook originally earned its core base of users by offering them simple and powerful controls over their personal information. As Facebook grew larger and became more important, it could have chosen to maintain or improve those controls. Instead, it's slowly but surely helped itself — and its advertising and business partners — to more and more of its users' information, while limiting the users' options to control their own information.

This shift in privacy policy almost perfectly corresponds to Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg's attitude towards this issue. Although Zuckerberg told users back in 2007 that privacy controls are "the vector around which Facebook operates", by January 2010 he had changed his tune, saying that he wouldn't include privacy controls if he were to restart Facebook from scratch. And just a few days ago, a New York Times reporter quoted a Facebook employee as saying Zuckerberg "doesn't believe in privacy".

This parctise has been much criticised, e.g. by German Federal Minister of Consumer Protection Ilse Aigner who, in April 2010, demanded improved respect of user-data policy and user right and threatened in a letter to Mr Zuckerberg that she will "feel obliged to terminate my membership, should Facebook not be willing to alter its business policy and eliminate the glaring shortcomings". Her step has been widely criticised as an (probably not so clever) PR coup of a conservative politician (christian democrats, CSU) wanting to address a young clientel and thus her (German language) Facebook initiative only earned about 8.000 (mostly German) fans.

Facebook’s Public Policy Communications Manager Andrew Noyes answered on Ms Aigners open letter in a rather concilliatory but non-obligatory way, leaving us behind with the question whether or nor Ms Aigner has to cancel her account now (which is answered here):
“We’d like to thank all of the users, advocates and experts, including Minister Aigner, who participated in our fifth comment period last week, which resulted in thousands of responses. We’ll carefully review the feedback we received and keep users fully informed about next steps. We hope that Minister Aigner and all of our users in Germany and around the world are encouraged by the openness and transparency we have and will continue to provide into Facebook’s governance. We also commit to continuing to offer easily accessible tools so people can control how they share their information and with whom.”
As Ms Aigner probably is not the social media addict she pretends to be in her open letter, there is also much criticism among real social media enthusiasts, as can be concluded from the Twitter discussion under #facebook. As far as my own facebook account is concerned, I try to limit the posted information to my professional interests mostly avoiding privat entries, which is not too odd nowadays, since Facebook became a valuable marketing tool especially for lawyers and legal service providers.