Facebook's privacy tightrope

Facebook may have killed off community voting on privacy policy but is it taking a big risk by not listening to its users?

Facebook is a commercial entity that is navigating a path fraught with danger with the multitude that inhabits the social network left exposed with a bullseye on their backs.

The executive director of US Centre for Digital Democracy Jeffrey Chester was recently told the Los Angeles Times that “Facebook’s vision of its member base is a bunch of people  naked, exposed and targeted at will by anyone who wants to do so.” But isn’t this what people sign on for when they opt to join Facebook?

People join Facebook because it is there, it is free and it simplifies the process of connecting with family and friends. There are alternatives but the ease of access and availability of Facebook makes it a compelling choice. It’s still possible to get a family domain name and to setup a family portal for photos, messages, email, and so on but this costs about $200 per annum and takes some time to master. The success of Facebook is built on the capability to connect with people quickly and to be able to access a range of features in the one internet based location.

For Facebook then privacy is at odds with the corporate goal of maximising revenues. The recent changes to privacy announced by Facebook are subtle shifts that facilitate new revenue opportunities while providing customers with some visibility over what is happening – but is this enough?

Earlier this month Facebook ran a vote about the proposed privacy changes and about 600,000 of the 10 billion Facebook users voted against the proposed changes. The vote fell short of the 300 million votes needed to reject the privacy changes under the current Facebook rules. With more than 10 billion registered users the chances of getting 300 million to all vote the same way were always slim and unsurprisingly, there will be no more votes on privacy changes.

What do the votes say?

About 600,000 Facebook users voted to reject the privacy changes proposed by Facebook. This is a significant number by any standard and Facebook would be wise to heed the advice that this outcome provides. Facebook is well aware that people are fickle and will move on to the next big thing as they did when they migrated to Facebook from MySpace. Facebook is relying on remaining the social media platform of choice for the foreseeable future, especially now that it has competitors on its tail.

The privacy changes are the latest changes proposed to partly address user concerns, but also to make it easier for advertisers and Facebook application developers to learn about the network’s users and to target marketing for individual users.

These changes include:

  1. New options that can be used to untag photos
  2. A simple pop-up privacy shortcut selector
  3. The capability to block people with one click
  4. User profiles will now become searchable
  5. The capability to hide or remove posts that appear of the searchable Timeline

The changes will be subject to the requirements that formed part of the US Federal Trade Commission settlement reached in April 2012 when Facebook agreed to get user consent for certain changes to privacy settings and to be independently audited regarding privacy provisions for 20 years.

Facebook has warned customers that information on the website needs to be closely monitored as the Timeline profile page is not the only personal information that may be viewed by others. This warning was reiterated by the Facebook Director of Product Sam Lessin who warned that: "when users don't understand the concepts and controls and hit surprises, they don't build the confidence they need. Our number one priority is to not surprise users with our controls.”

Gunning for the top

What Facebook should be aware of is that Google, Microsoft and Apple, currently locked in combat in the devices space, will inevitably turn their attention to social media as a way to consolidate application, game, email, chat and talk features of their current offerings.

Google has already taken steps to enter into the social media fray with Google and it is only time before Microsoft and Apple do the same. The reason that this will occur is pragmatic more than any particular desire to destroy Facebook. Customers want a reason to purchase a device from Google, Microsoft or Apple and one key reason for Apple’s success to date has been the integration of apps with entertainment purchases.

Facebook bought Instagram in September 2012 and this acquisition provides Facebook with a stranglehold on the photo sharing space. More than one billion photos have been shared with Instagram. This tie-up was always going spark a response from other social media organisations and Twitter has fired off its own salvo this week with the launch a photo sharing application to compete with the Facebook / Instagram combination. The shift by Twitter will not immediately hurt Facebook as it has plans to more closely integrate Instagram into the Facebook platform. However, the question that needs to be asked now is will Facebook retaliate and create a competitor to Twitter?

A sleeper in the pack is Microsoft for little is known about Microsoft’s plans for Skype. Skype provides a huge customer base and by subtly and slowly adding to Skype, Microsoft could build an alternative ecosystem to Facebook. However, Microsoft will need to show flare and innovation to do this and the current management team has not demonstrated a great deal of either lately – but there is always 2013. 

Mark Gregory is a Senior Lecturer in Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT University