How Facebook Created Its Privacy Crisis


People like Facebook because people like friends. We like reading about our friends' interests, clicking through their dinner party pictures, and finding out what they're up to.

People don't like Facebook because people don't like feeling harvested. We don't like formerly private information turned public; or companies scraping through profiles; or a CEO joking about our gullibility.

And there's the rub. Facebook users see Facebook as a yearbook. Facebook executives see Facebook as an information reservoir. We want a privacy policy that's fixed. They want a privacy policy that molds to the contours of the company's evolving business model.

Concerns about Facebook's privacy snafus grow and fade with regularity, but this feels more like a tipping point: bloggers announcing that they're quitting Facebook, writers calling for an open alternative. What's changed? Facebook information used to be public only within your friends circle. Then that public network expanded to include anybody at your school or company. Then it expanded to include your geographical network. Then the circle grew to include the entire Internet. Finally, Facebook designed a new protocol to share Facebook information with sites like Yelp and Pandora to personalize our browsing experience on the Web. Now Facebookers are starting to feel less like "the users" and more like "the used."

The concerns are important, because privacy is important. Facebook should heed this smart Wired column and create a simpler, broader privacy control system that asks users to choose a privacy setting between "public" and "very private."  These categories could be broad enough that Facebook could make tweaks to its privacy settings without blowing up the system by suddenly throwing private account information onto Google.

But Farhad Manjoo is right: the Internet is a public-by-default space, and users are already pushing the dial away from close-to-the-chest privacy. The reason that Facebook is popular in the first place is that friends and acquaintances want to share their photos, activities and updates with a broader community. The solution is to give users the chance to define the size of that community.

Despite its lackluster record on privacy, Facebook's effort to let websites see the stories, music and restaurants we "like" is probably good news. To self quote: Imagine the improvement to online shopping "if [websites] made consistently good recommendations based on your known likes and dislikes," as Manjoo muses. Imagine the improvements to targeted advertising: you're browsing CNN on your smartphone and a mobile ad pops up with a happy hour coupon for a restaurant around the block you liked on Yelp. Imagine a news aggregation site that organized your friends' favorite opinion pieces by their self-described political persuasion, so that you could break out that news feed into liberal, conservative, and libertarian. A trainable Internet that listens and remembers to what we like is not something to be afraid of. It's a shame Facebook doesn't seem to understand how to bring its customers along for the ride.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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