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Globe Editorial

Facebook’s privacy downgrade

December 16, 2009

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THE SOCIAL-NETWORKING giant Facebook should be helping its 350 million members keep more of their information private. Embarrassment is only the most common affliction of those who unwisely posted compromising photos, personally attacked co-workers, or committed other social-networking faux pas. Many lost friends, job opportunities, and self-respect.

Facebook, of course, profits from the greater exchange of information, through more clicks and more ads. So when users logged on last week and found an instructional “wizard’’ that forced them to check and, if they so desired, adjust the current state of their privacy preferences, it seemed at first that Facebook was sacrificing some ad opportunities for the greater good of its users. The site’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, had recently sent users a note promising “a simpler model for privacy control.’’

But it didn’t take long to realize that Facebook’s privacy wizard was using its magic wand to encourage more openness, not less. The site lets users decide how strictly to guard different categories of information - for instance, whether to disclose their favorite books just to friends, or to friends of friends, or even all Facebook users. But the site also made its own suggestions, which in many cases prompted users to expose more information.

Facebook insists that users are free to reject its recommendations. But a user who clicks through the privacy wizard quickly could end up disclosing personal information to millions of people who didn’t have access to it before.

At least some changes were for the better. Facebook’s decision to ask all users to set their privacy rules at the very least forced users to consider the possible implication of every photo they post and comment they make.

But Facebook’s subtle nudges toward greater disclosure coincided with other disconcerting changes: The site is treating more information, such as a user’s home city and photo, as “publicly available information’’ that the user cannot control. Over time, privacy changes can only alienate users. Most people who join Facebook do so because they want to share photos and messages with friends and family, not to expose their lives to the entire world.

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