Facebook’s Bait & Switch and User Complicity

mark-zuckerbergI admit I was shocked when Facebook announced last month that the new default for users would be a complete lack of privacy, unless you had or did set your privacy controls to shut out anyone but your friends. Librarians have a very strong notion of patron privacy that spills over even to us Information Scientists. Long before the company’s founder announced changes to the privacy of users, I had put controls on who could see what.

I was shocked to learn my friends list would be made public, along with other personal information. I could understand if my name and address were made public, but my friend list? That is the equivalent of “someone” printing one’s personal address book in a newspaper, page by page. I felt that Facebook’s founder had pulled a bait and switch. Somehow, I think that if Zuckerberg had established a “no privacy” policy at the outset, his company would not have succeeded.

I did consider closing down my Facebook account, but I decided against it. The application’s designers have made it easier than email for me to be in contact with current and long-lost friends and family. This cartoon nicely sums up my own (and others’) ambivalence and guilt with regards to giving up our privacy.

Facebook "privacy" and User's Own Guilt

This past week I read that Mark Zuckerberg announced in front of a live audience that the “age of privacy is over“. (And if I hadn’t been working to get the back end of this blog up and running, I’d have posted my opinions on that announcement sooner!) This is the kind of attitude that makes me want to shut down my account. I’ve lived my life online for more than a decade, but IMO, there is a difference between what I may choose to release about myself (for example, on a blog that I own and run), and what a company whose product I use is allowed to announce or release about me without my knowledge and consent. That is one reason I limit how many and which Google products I use. In other words, these companies generate revenue from the ads placed in the products we use based on anonymized data from the users. I’m OK with that type of use of my personal data, because it allows me to use a product for free. I’m not OK with my personal data being released to the Web with no recourse to prevent it other than closing the account…assuming that would erase all of my personal data on Facebook.

I’m not sure what I am going to do about my Facebook account. I believe that data has already been released, and, like Pandora’s box, cannot be put back in. I wasn’t thinking about personal privacy when I opened my account in 2004, and even under the best of circumstances, it is difficult to completely delete one’s Facebook account. I feel like I am in a quicksand pit of my own complicity. On the one hand, I am fine with living my life online. On the other hand, I feel that I do still have a right to privacy. And then I blog about it, which defeats the purpose of having privacy concerns!

What are your thoughts and feelings regarding users’ lack of control over the release of personal data by private companies whose revenue is generated from aggregating the personal data given and created by their users? If something is free, do we give up all right to control our personal data when we sign up?

[For some excellent reporting on Facebook’s bait and switch, please look through ReadWriteWeb-Facebook.]

Please let me know what you think....