Facebook turns against its users, pro marketers


The EFF has put together a timeline of Facebook’s Eroding Privacy Policy. And it’s a deeply disturbing thing to read. Please read the whole (brief) post over at the EFF website, but I’d like to highlight the development with just two quotes.

From the 2005 Facebook privacy policy:

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.

From the April 2010 Facebook privacy policy:

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.”

This is just the most recent of many changes Facebook has unilaterally imposed on its users. It’s not like the 400+ million Facebook users were consulted about these changes, or will ever be. Unlike Google, which in Germany is often and harshly criticized about privacy concerns, there is a different quality to what Facebook is doing: Google has a business interest in only using abstract (i.e. aggregated) data (so they can sell access to this data as a middle man), and otherwise get out of the way as they live off of more people just using the web, thus being exposed to more ads.

Facebook on the other hand hasn’t figured out a really smart way to monetize on their users. But instead of working hard on figuring out a smarter way, they instead decided to just do the stupid thing: they are now in the business of selling their users. This wasn’t the second best option, but arguably the worst.

Now to put this into perspective: Facebook has introduced features or other changes many times over the years. Always there was a huge outcry; sometimes they were right in standing by the changes (activity stream, anyone?), sometimes they were right in abandoning them (remember Beacon?).

However, there were also cases where they stood by even their dumber decisions, like making the default setting of Facebook public. Since users of web services tend to leave the settings untouched, the default setting is a big deal. You make a bad decision and most of your users suffer. That’s what Facebook did a few months back: Just switch settings from private to public for everyone who hadn’t changed their privacy settings. (Better idea: if you want to switch defaults, just do it for new users and tell them about it.)

Now Facebook has implemented some major changes both in their privacy policy and in their architecture again. Much has been written about the (lousy, nasty, annoying) details; I recommend Chris Messina’s post “understanding the open graph protocol” to get up to speed on the criticism:

Ok, not a big deal, but think laterally: how about this? What if Larry and Sergey wanted to recreate PageRank today? You know what I bet they wish they could have done? Forced anyone who wanted to add a page to the web to authenticate with them first. It sure would have kept out all those pesky spammers! Oh, and anyone that wanted to be part of the Google index, well they’d have to add additional metadata to their pages so that the content graph would be spic and span. Then add in the “like” button to track user engagement and then use that data to determine which pages and content to recommend to people based on their social connections (also stored on their server) and you’ve got a pretty compelling, centralized service. All those other pages from the long tail? Well, they’re just not that interesting anyway, right? This sounds a lot to me like “Authenticated PageRank” — where everyone that wants to be listed in the index would have to get a Google account first. Sounds kind of smart, right? Except — shucks — there’s just one problem with this model: it’s evil! When all likes lead to Facebook, and liking requires a Facebook account, and Facebook gets to hoard all of the metadata and likes around the interactions between people and content, it depletes the ecosystem of potential and chaos — those attributes which make the technology industry so interesting and competitive.

So the new Facebook system sucks more than the old one, that’s one of the problems. But I think there’s another issue: I’ve lost my trust in Facebook. It’s not like Facebook was the most trustworthy service to begin with, but it seemed that our goals were kind of aligned: get more people on board, make it easier to share info with friends. Good stuff, right? But it turned out that Facebook management decided that this wasn’t enough for them, and instead they now cater not to their users, but primarily to marketers. (For them, the new Facebook is a pretty sweet deal. For site owners, it’s nice and convenient short term, but will suck in the longer run.) In other words: I had to learn that Facebook interests and my personal needs aren’t aligned, but pretty much contrary.

When I saw a message pop up from Facebook about linking my profile to certain sites and profile pages, even a few months ago I would have clicked OK. Now I manually opted out of every single check box, and went ahead to set my privacy settings to the most paranoid settings I could find. This means a lot, given that I’m usually not exactly a privacy nut, and my personal default setting is to share liberally online.

I don’t trust Facebook to handle my data anymore, nor to be open, upfront and acting in my interest when implementing changes.

Since 2005 I’ve been on Facebook. There is, at the moment, no decent alternative I know to keep in touch with my friends who live all over the place. So for the moment I’m locked into Facebook. But a locked-in user is a user lost – as soon as a better alternative pops up, I’m gone, and I’ll take my friends with me, even if it means adding them one by one, by hand. Because they deserve better than being exposed to Facebook marketers through their connection with me.

Generations of web startups will study Facebook and its development. I’m guessing that 2010 is the year they will mark red, as from there on the decline of Facebook would become obvious. Even though I’m still hoping that Facebook turns around. They had the chance of not just being a successful business, but a great one.


Thanks for that. I am thinking the exactly same thing and see myself—as you do, too—locked in to Facebook because there is no viable alternative. I wonder if many people think this way…

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