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Facebook Changes Social Contract, Once Again

A new set of changes to Facebook privacy system is being proposed. Jason Kincaid at Techcrunch zooms into the most questionable change: Facebook shifted a few months ago into making ‘everyone’ the default sharing option (see Facebook Wants To Be Twitter). Now, they are shifting the definition of ‘everyone’ to include third party apps that you haven’t explicitly opted into.

Jason Kincaid, Facebook’s Plan To Automatically Share Your Data With Sites You Never Signed Up For

In short, it sounds like Facebook is going to be automatically opting users into a reduced form of Facebook Connect on certain third party sites — a bold change that may well unnerve users, at least at first. Here’s how Facebook is describing the change in its blog post:

Today, when you use applications such as games on or choose to connect to Facebook on sites across the web, you are able to find and interact with your friends. These applications require a small set of basic information about you in order to provide a relevant experience. After feedback from many of you, we announced in August that we were moving toward a model that gives you clearer controls over what data is shared with applications and websites when you choose to use them.

In the proposed privacy policy, we’ve also explained the possibility of working with some partner websites that we pre-approve to offer a more personalized experience at the moment you visit the site. In such instances, we would only introduce this feature with a small, select group of partners and we would also offer new controls.

So what does that mean? We’ve heard that select Facebook partners will now be able to look for your existing Facebook cookie to identify you, even if you never opted into Facebook Connect on the site you’re visiting. Using that, the third party site will be able to display your friends and other key information. It’s possible that these sites will also be able to display any data you’ve shared with ‘everyone‘, which is of course now the default option on Facebook.

Facebook’s draft privacy policy states that you’ll be able to opt-out of these sites, and you’ll also be able to opt-out of these ‘pre-approved’ experiences entirely. But by default, you’re all in. How convenient.

I looked over the proposed privacy document. In short: a great deal of stylistic modifications, and what appear to be substantive changes to the sharing section, among others. Here’s the proposed language, with my comments:

3. Sharing information on Facebook.

This section explains how your privacy settings work, and how your information is shared on Facebook. You should always consider your privacy settings before sharing information on Facebook.

Name and Profile Picture. Facebook is designed to make it easy for you to find and connect with others. For this reason, your name and profile picture do not have privacy settings. If you are uncomfortable with sharing your profile picture, you should delete it (or not add one). You can also control who can find you when searching on Facebook or on public search engines using your search settings.

Remember, this defaults to ‘everyone’ and the only other options are ‘friends’ and ‘friends of friends’. Not a lot of fine grained controls.

Contact Information. Your contact information settings control who can contact you on Facebook, and who can see your contact information such as your email and phone number(s). Remember that none of this information is required except for your email address, and you do not have to share your email address with anyone.

Personal Information. Your personal information settings control who can see your personal information, such as your religious and political views, if you choose to add them. We recommend that you share this information using the friends of friends setting.

Posts by Me. You can select a privacy setting for every post you make using the publisher on our site. Whether you are uploading a photo or posting a status update, you can control exactly who can see it at the time you create it. Whenever you share something look for the lock icon. Clicking on the lock will bring up a menu that lets you choose who will be able to see your post. If you decide not to select your setting at the time you post the content, your content will be shared consistent with your Posts by Me privacy setting.

Connections. Facebook enables you to connect with virtually anyone or anything you want, from your friends and family to the city you live in to the restaurants you like to visit to the bands and movies you love. Because it takes two to connect, your privacy settings only control who can see the connection on your profile page. If you are uncomfortable with the connection being publicly available, you should consider removing (or not making) the connection.

Gender and Birth Date. In addition to name and email address, we require you to provide your gender and birth date during the registration process. We ask for your date of birth to verify that you are 13 or older, and so that we can better limit your access to content and advertisements that are not age appropriate. Because your date of birth and gender are required, you cannot delete them. You can, however, edit your profile to hide all (or part) of such fields from other users.

Other. Here are some other things to remember:

  • Some of the content you share and the actions you take will show up on your friends’ home pages and other pages they visit.

And if those pages are public, so is the information your published ‘only to friends’?

  • If another user tags you in a photo or video or at a place, you can remove the tag. You can also limit who can see that you have been tagged on your profile from your privacy settings.

How will you be notified about the tagging? Do you have to discover it on your own?

  • Even after you remove information from your profile or delete your account, copies of that information may remain viewable elsewhere to the extent it has been shared with others, it was otherwise distributed pursuant to your privacy settings, or it was copied or stored by other users.

  • You understand that information might be reshared or copied by other users.

  • Certain types of communications that you send to other users cannot be removed, such as messages.

I think the list of communications of this sort — that can’t be deleted — should be fully enumerated.

  • When you post information on another user’s profile or comment on another user’s post, that information will be subject to the other user’s privacy settings.

  • If you use an external source to publish information to Facebook (such as a mobile application or a Connect site), you should check the privacy setting for that post, as it is set by that external source.

“Everyone” Information. Information set to “everyone” is publicly available information, just like your name, profile picture, and connections. Such information may, for example, be accessed by everyone on the Internet (including people not logged into Facebook), be indexed by third party search engines, and be imported, exported, distributed, and redistributed by us and others without privacy limitations. Such information may also be associated with you, including your name and profile picture, even outside of Facebook, such as on public search engines and when you visit other sites on the internet. The default privacy setting for certain types of information you post on Facebook is set to “everyone.” You can review and change the default settings in your privacy settings. If you delete “everyone” content that you posted on Facebook, we will remove it from your Facebook profile, but have no control over its use outside of Facebook.

Minors. We reserve the right to add special protections for minors (such as to provide them with an age-appropriate experience) and place restrictions on the ability of adults to share and connect with minors, recognizing this may provide minors a more limited experience on Facebook.

So: it looks like there is a very murky area here. You have control over who can access your information (in part), but once your friends or others have access to the information, there are limited controls on what happens to it. Certain information — communications — can’t be deleted. And so-called ‘general information’ name, photo, and the list of your friends is publicly available no matter what you do.

And the second bit of murkiness: what can third parties do?

4. Information You Share With Third Parties.

Facebook Platform. As mentioned above, we do not own or operate the applications or websites that use Facebook Platform. That means that when you use those applications and websites you are making your Facebook information available to someone other than Facebook. Prior to allowing them to access any information about you, we require them to agree to terms that limit their use of your information (which you can read about in Section 9 of our Statement of Rights and Responsibilities) and we use technical measures to ensure that they only obtain authorized information. To learn more about Platform, visit our About Platform page.

These third parties agree to fairly stringent terms, but the tough question is always ‘how do we know that they are in fact not using this information for other, nefarious purposes?’

Connecting with an Application or Website. 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, connections, and any content shared using the Everyone privacy setting. We may also make information about the location of your computer or access device and your age available to applications and websites in order to help them implement appropriate security measures and control the distribution of age-appropriate content. If the application or website wants to access any other data, it will have to ask for your permission.

We give you tools to control how your information is shared with applications and websites that use Platform. For example, you can block specific applications from accessing your information by visiting your application settings or the application’s “About” page. You can also use your privacy settings to limit which of your information is available to “everyone”.

You should always review the policies of third party applications and websites to make sure you are comfortable with the ways in which they use information you share with them. We do not guarantee that they will follow our rules. If you find an application or website that violates our rules, you should report the violation to us on this help page and we will take action as necessary.

Ok, they are giving third party apps access to general info, location, and public information. Seems benign.

When your friends use Platform. If your friend connects with an application or website, it will be able to access your name, profile picture, gender, user ID, and information you have shared with “everyone.” It will also be able to access your connections, except it will not be able to access your friend list. If you have already connected with (or have a separate account with) that website or application, it may also be able to connect you with your friend on that application or website. If the application or website wants to access any of your other content or information (including your friend list), it will have to obtain specific permission from your friend. If your friend grants specific permission to the application or website, it will generally only be able to access content and information about you that your friend can access. In addition, it will only be allowed to use that content and information in connection with that friend. For example, if a friend gives an application access to a photo you only shared with your friends, that application could allow your friend to view or print the photo, but it cannot show that photo to anyone else.

We provide you with a number of tools to control how your information is shared when your friend connects with an application or website. For example, you can use your application privacy settings to limit some of the information your friends can make available to applications and websites. You can also block particular applications or websites from accessing your information. You can use your privacy settings to limit which friends can access your information, or limit which of your information is available to “everyone.” You can also disconnect from a friend if you are uncomfortable with how they are using your information.

Here it states that third party apps when used by your friends won’t have access to your friend list. But those apps do have access to the info that you are connected to your friend, so that datum *is* available.

And then, the indigestible part: Pre-Approved Third-Party Applications.

Pre-Approved Third-Party Websites and Applications. In order to provide you with useful social experiences off of Facebook, we occasionally need to provide General Information about you to pre-approved third party websites and applications that use Platform at the time you visit them (if you are still logged in to Facebook). Similarly, when one of your friends visits a pre-approved website or application, it will receive General Information about you so you and your friend can be connected on that website as well (if you also have an account with that website). In these cases we require these websites and applications to go through an approval process, and to enter into separate agreements designed to protect your privacy. For example, these agreements include provisions relating to the access and deletion of your General Information, along with your ability to opt-out of the experience being offered. You can also remove any pre-approved website or application you have visited here [add link], or block all pre-approved websites and applications from getting your General Information when you visit them here [add link]. In addition, if you log out of Facebook before visiting a pre-approved application or website, it will not be able to access your information. You can see a complete list of pre-approved websites on our About Platform page.

These pre-approved apps *do* have access to your friend list, and other general information, without you agreeing to it in advance. You may only discover this when you visit some website — while still logged into Facebook — and all of a sudden the site is telling you about your friends, or recommending stuff that is suitable to someone of your age, location, and with this particular groups of friends who like karaoke or bowling.

The social networking equivalent of a shotgun wedding.

Does the ‘complete list’ never change? How will I be informed when new third parties may have access to my information? Do I have to visit that site frequently?

Exporting Information. You (and those you make your information available to) may use tools like RSS feeds, mobile phone address book applications, or copy and paste functions, to capture, export (and in some cases, import) information from Facebook, including your information and information about you. For example, if you share your phone number with your friends, they may use third party applications to sync that information with the address book on their mobile phone.

Advertisements. Sometimes the advertisers who present ads on Facebook use technological methods to measure the effectiveness of their ads and to personalize advertising content. You may opt-out of the placement of cookies by many of these advertisers here. You may also use your browser cookie settings to limit or prevent the placement of cookies by advertising networks.

Oh, and advertisers can use their own cookies to maintain a dossier on us.

Links. When you click on links on Facebook you may leave our site. We are not responsible for the privacy practices of other sites, and we encourage you to read their privacy statements.


So, a slippery slope.

Facebook’s privacy policy is a strange hybrid of a bunch of contending forces, where none is the defining modality, and the result is a goopy quicksand. Those forces?

Private, Personal Relationships — Facebook was originally conceived of as a way for individuals to connect with other people that were likely to be, or could possibly be, real-world, face-to-face contacts, like two students at the same college. In this way, much of the base platform was — and still is — based around an intuitive notion of friendship, and the transitive relationship of ‘friend of friend’. Even the original notion of ‘everyone’ seemed like it meant other people who use the service as private individuals, not third partie apps, advertisers, or people standing in for companies or brands.

Corporate Strip Malling Of Social Networks — When corporations create accounts and build facebook pages and groups, which we can ‘friend’ or follow we are dramatically shifting the social contract around private, personal relationships into something very very different. And it changes everything.

Publicy Eroding Privacy — When Facebook changed the default sharing option to ‘everyone’ — where ‘everyone’ includes all entities now and in the future that are allowed to operate in the system, in essense the trend is toward full openness and the end of privacy. It is not happening all at once — because of the pressure of governments and watchdogs — but the likely end state is somewhere at the other end of the proavcy/publicy spectrum from where Facebook started.

Preapproved Third Parties — Facebook has created a class of third parties — presumably using Facebook Connect to augment their own websites — who have access to a greater degree of your ‘general information’, which is a synonym for information that you don’t control unless you delete it. This includes your friends list, so a wide variety of third parties will be able to socially market to us (if we use Facebook).

Where will this lead? Facebook is engineering a social setting where it has the rights to use all the public information and the general (uncontrollable) information you provide, however it wants. It is selling access to the information that it captures about our social networks to preapproaved third parties, and it allows corporations to mingle with us, in ways we don’t exactly fathom but which are some strange mutated version of friendship. Advertisers can gather all sorts of click data, or snoop on what pages we visit and when.

My recommendation is to operate on a full publicy mindset, even if Facebook seems to be safeguarding various sorts of privacy in very convoluted ways.

Just pretend this is the Facebook privacy policy, and you can’t go wrong:

There is no privacy on Facebook. Everything you create, access, or share is public. The fact that you looked at a page, created something or deleted it, and any relationship you agree to is public. We reserve the right to do anything with any information we can capture about you, or any information you offer about yourself or any of your ‘friends’ on the system. We reserve the right to make anyone or any corporation a user of the system, and they can conceal their reasons for being there or their intentions for how they will use any public information about you or your friends, which is all inforrmation on the system because nothing is private, even when we use the work ‘private’. Private is public.

While I am an advocate for, and a believer in a more public, open, and transparent web, I am concerned at the Orwellian overtones in Facebook. There is so much potential revenue in the gray between real privacy and this intermediate model,  where various sorts of snooping into our social relationships are attractive to advertisers and corporations. But the only way this can be monetized is to sell seats at the peephole, to let them peak in on things that feel private, but aren’t.

So just pretend it’s all very public and merchantile; but ask yourself if you want to live life in a mall under the security camers and the fluorescent lights.

I am happy to be public, myself, but I would rather do it in a setting that feels like a bustling plaza, a place that seems dedicated to the principles of open social discourse, rather than a place that is strip-mining our social connection and selling it off to hucksters by the truck load.

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