Facebook Making Changes To Its Privacy Policy
March 23, 2012

Facebook Making Changes To Its Privacy Policy

Brett Smith for RedOrbit.com

The website that has helped to sustain the momentum of the Arab Spring for over a year is now facing a prolonged protest of its own. Facebook has been confronted by privacy concerns once again this week as the site´s users were asked to react to proposed changes for its Privacy Policy.

The newly proposed privacy policy, which has been renamed the Data Use Policy, is being view by some as an attempt at transparency rather than an attempt at protecting personal privacy on the world´s largest social networking site.

Interestingly, Facebook users´ protests over privacy juxtaposes a desire for socialization with the wish for privacy and personal space.

While many people are lamenting the invasion of Facebook into their personal information, a recent study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences by Western Illinois professor Christopher Carpenter showed a direct correlation between the number of Facebook friends a person has and narcissistic traits such as “grandiose exhibitionism.”

However, users have been railing against the perceived capitalization of their personal information without their direct consent. Facebook has made attempts to snuff out potential privacy-oriented controversies in the past by giving users better options on how their information can be viewed.

In one of the changes made to the privacy policy, users are notified that their data is shared with the apps that friends use.  While this has been the case for about five years, the new language reflects a desire for clarification, according to a CNET interview with Facebook spokesman Barry Schnitt.

Schnitt also explained how harvesting data from users is a vital part of the Facebook experience and is especially important to software developers looking to design applications that build on the existing website.

"Facebook is a social Web site and so is our platform,” he said. “Apps need data from friends to develop these social experiences and that is the whole purpose for our platform.”

Users from around the world are voicing their protests in the comment sections for the proposed changes. Over 32,000 comments on the German-language version of the Data Use Policy page read "Ich lehne die Änderungen ab" or “I reject the changes.”

The German government has been consistent with this sentiment, leading the way with respect to protecting their citizens´ privacy on Facebook. Earlier this month, a Berlin court found the Facebook Friendfinder function and certain terms and conditions on the website to be unenforceable under German law. The court also found several other Facebook´s user terms and conditions unenforceable under German law. Among them Facebook´s ability to use any content posted to their site royalty-free including the use of profile images and pictures for advertising purposes.

In addition, German privacy policy officials issued a statement this week regarding the new Facebook proposal saying users are being “led around by the nose” and have been given less choices and more duties when it comes to privacy on the website.

This is not the first time Facebook users have howled in protest over the site´s privacy policy. Users were encouraged to quit Facebook on May 31, 2010 to voice their disapproval of the privacy policy at the time. Spearheaded by the website Quitfacebooktoday.com, the protest resulted in about 30,000 of the site´s half-billion users deleting their accounts.

Although many would consider this digital demonstration a failure, Facebook did roll out changes to its privacy policy in the week before the protest was to occur. The changes included a newly designed “privacy dashboard” to make protecting personal information easier and simpler. In commenting on the changes, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg said any privacy setting changes made to Facebook accounts would be applied retrospectively as well.

Some of the changes included in this month's Data Use Policy are attempts are curbing the “dark side” of Facebook. One change listed under the Safety section of the proposal sets new age restriction guidelines for dating applications, which will most likely restrict minors from using them. Another change further restricts photo tagging of users without their consent. This appears to be an attempt to restrict the cyber-bullying that occurs through the use of photo tagging.

Another change that could be seen as benefitting Facebook consumers is the language surrounding the automated collecting of data. The proposed change would require services to ask permission from Facebook before using automated tools to scrape the site for data. Currently, automated tools can be used before receiving this authorization.

In what could be a nod to the recent Berlin court decision, the new proposal also gives Facebook the latitude to disable certain features and functions in certain geographical locations. This would allow the company to avoid legal entanglements over privacy laws that may differ from country to country.

A more sinister way to interpret this aspect of the Data Use Policy would be to say that it is tantamount to censorship. In mirroring Twitter´s ability to stop the flow of information, Facebook could shut the site down in geographic areas of unrest for whatever reason it deems necessary.

This language appears to be carefully crafted as Facebook begins to make overtures toward the Chinese government. In the company´s SEC filing this February, China was mentioned nine times. The company likely sees the world´s most populous country as a huge potential market and may be looking for wiggle room with respect to China´s strict censorship policy without damaging Facebook´s international reputation for change.

China has blocked access to Facebook for the past three years, appearing suspicious of the company´s potential ability to circumvent the ruling Communist Party. That suspicion could be well justified after reading founder Mark Zuckerburg´s open letter to potential investors in which he said his company would seek “a more honest and transparent dialogue around government that could lead to more direct empowerment of people.”

There is no denying Facebook´s universal appeal as the site millions of users can attest to, whether that might be in the United States, Asia, or Europe. Ultimately, the market and Facebook users will determine the acceptance level of the website´s Faustian bargain with respect to privacy.