by Elisabeth K. Cooke
Founded in February 2004, Facebook has quickly become one of the most popular social networking sites, playing host to 400 million users in 75 different languages around the world. Facebook’s mission is to ‘give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected’. They are certainly well on their way. Even the Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory is on board with Facebook, ruling in 2008 that Facebook is a valid protocol to serve notice to defendants.
The concept of social networking sites raises a number of privacy and safety concerns. Recently, Facebook has been in the news for a surprising variety of reasons: police laying charges based on the contents of photos, fugitives being located from their own status updates and young people coming to harms way. The very nature of social networking sites provides for a broad ability to raise all sorts of issues. However, it is how Facebook users establish and maintain privacy that has become of the utmost importance.
Understanding Privacy Settings
Talking about Facebook and privacy has quickly become as popular as skinny jeans and the elusive ‘best’ coffee in Melbourne. But what should we actually be worrying about? What are the risks and concerns? As a proud and possibly addicted Facebook user, here are my top three concerns:
- Who can access my Facebook profile content and personal information?
- Search engine visibility
- 3rd party advertisers
Understanding privacy on Facebook is much different than privacy in the offline world. Generally, we assume that we are the gatekeepers that grant others a right to our personal information. Facebook sees things differently. Facebook keeps the gate open as their default setting for privacy. Facebook argues that everyone ‘opts in’ to join Facebook and every time a user posts a status update or photo, they have ‘opted in’ to share that personal information by the mere act of adding it to their account. This means that anyone who joins Facebook (meaning anyone over the age of 13 with a valid email address) has zero privacy until they sort through the 50 different settings with 170 options.
Controlling My Profile
Facebook’s privacy settings are detailed and specific. Most importantly they are designed to empower users to sort through each setting individually in order to protect users privacy. It is essential go through each category to select your own privacy settings.
Personally, I was quick to adjust the ‘Search’ subcategory to control who could search for me either on Facebook or on a search engine (search engines can index anything you make public, I set my profile as completely private). I also took the liberty of ‘blocking’ a few individuals on Facebook who shall remain nameless. Apart from 3rd party advertisers, which I’ll address later on, that took care of the outside world – it was then time to work through my ‘Friends’.
I have found that the most effective and time efficient way to control what different ‘Friends’ can see is by creating ‘friend lists’. Creating lists is relatively easy. On my ‘Home’ page, I selected ‘Friends’ from the right hand column of options. The ‘Friends’ page provided me with a list of all my friends in order of most recent activity. At the top of the ‘Friends’ page is a button marks ‘Create a List’. Once I clicked the list I had the option to create a group of friends separate from all of my other friends.
While I would never want to openly admit that I classify or rank my ‘friends’ – I secretly do. Inner circle friends, family, work colleagues, university colleagues all have their own lists. I have found these lists useful to sending out group messages over Facebook, but most importantly, I can tailor the level of privacy I want to have against the entire list by simply going through my privacy settings and ‘allowing’ or ‘blocking’ them on all settings (who can see photos, wall posts etc). This enables me to have a slightly more manageable and time efficient strategy for protecting my privacy. This is of course not to say that I have a particularly interesting Facebook profile, in fact, I am quite sure that I don’t. However, not all of my friends on Facebook need to see me in my pyjamas on Christmas morning.
3rd Party Advertising
Facebook says they don’t share identity or names – they sell advertising based on demographic and perceived interests. Facebook uses anonymized demographically targeted ads, and “serve ad impressions to users where the word is on there somewhere”. While similar to a key word search on Google, this the word search goes through your entire Facebook profile, including personal messages, wall posts, etc. This translates into advertising getting their audience without getting the personal information.
Since setting my status as ‘engaged’ I have been bombarded with ads full of blushing young women dressed up as cupcakes. At the beginning of the year, I arranged a trip to Sydney and organized to meet friends via Facebook messages. Imagine my surprise when ads for Sydney Opera House tours started popping up on the right hand side of my profile.
Facebook’s business pages currently hosts over 1.5 million small businesses and plan to go up against Google in providing advertising services. The anonymized demographically targeted ads provide businesses with the ability to narrow down their target audience, reaching directly to specific individuals. Facebook goes as far as to provides users with the option to ‘close’ an ad and give feedback on why they chose to close the ad. How helpful.
Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities
Facebook’s ‘Statement of Rights and Responsibilities’ provides that they can amend the Statement so long as they provide users with notice by posting the change on the Facebook Site Governance Page and provide users with an opportunity to give comment (Section 13). If there are 7000 or more users who comment on a change, Facebook will provide a voting mechanism for the particular change. While Facebook prides itself on being user friendly – the moral of the story is that changes can happen without users receiving direct notification. This means that users must exercise self-responsibility and frequently check the Facebook Site Governance Page for any updates or changes.
New Additions and applications
Social plug-ins let you see what your friends have liked, commented on or shared on sites across the web. All social plug-ins are extensions of Facebook and are specifically designed so none of your data is shared with the sites on which they appear. For example, last week I was on cnn.com and paused in the middle of the reading an article only to notice a bar at the right hand side of the page informing me that one of my Facebook friends had recently posted a comment on his friend’s Facebook wall about that particular article. I couldn’t log into Facebook fast enough to update my privacy settings.
Facebook is on the cusp of offering location-based services to Facebook users. This service will allow users to see the geographical location of other users at the time they log in. This will certainly take ‘face creeping’ (checking up on or ‘stalking’) someone’s profile to an entirely new level.
Facebook reported that they will soon ramp up their efforts to provide better guidance to those confused about how to control sharing and maintain privacy. Elliot Schrage, Vice President for Public Policy at Facebook said that ‘anyone interested in these topics should become fans of the About Facebook Page and the Facebook Site Governance Page — two valuable sources of information that already provide regular updates to more than 8 million users’. Users are also welcome to become a fan of ‘Facebook’ and to leave a suggestion at the help center.
While I continue to juggle my paranoia with what has become a mild obsession with Facebook I have found three approaches that I believe protect my privacy: maintain my ‘Friend lists’, checking changes to privacy settings frequently and using what my mother would call using my ‘not-so-common common sense’ about what I post about myself on the internet. But after all the work to maintain my privacy and stay ahead of any updates or changes, I can’t help but ask myself, is it worth the risk?
Elisabeth K. Cooke is a JD candidate at the Melbourne Law School