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Editorial

The business of Facebook

What's good for the social networking site isn't necessarily what's good for users, as new privacy controls illustrate.

December 12, 2009

This week, Facebook finally implemented the privacy enhancements it promised several months ago. And oddly enough, the world now knows more, not less, about many of the social network's 350 million users. Although that's not what the public may have expected, it's no accident. And as disturbing as it may be to privacy advocates, the change may have the welcome effect of opening users' eyes to the reality of their relationship with Facebook. Simply put, it's not their friend.

The "upgrade" grew out of criticism the company received for not being sensitive enough to users' privacy. Its “Beacon” initiative drew particular scorn, as users found themselves unwittingly becoming pitchmen for services and sites they frequented. (The company recently settled a lawsuit over Beacon, agreeing to finance a nonprofit organization to promote online privacy.) This summer, executives announced that Facebook would give users simpler and more powerful tools to limit the spread of their personal information. Those tools went live this week. The most significant is the ability to limit who sees items that users post on the network, including status updates (e.g., "Heading to Staples for the Lakers game"), notes, videos and links. The site also reminds users -- once -- about this new ability to narrow the reach of their bons mots.

But even as it gave them more control over some items, Facebook took away users' ability to conceal certain data from prying eyes -- or, more likely, advertisers. It created a category, dubbed "publicly available information," that is beyond users’ control. The category includes a person's name, picture and city, the list of their Facebook friends and the Facebook pages they have endorsed. The friends list is particularly sensitive, privacy advocates note, because of the amount of personal information that can be gleaned from knowing a person’s associates.

Why would Facebook do such things? Because it's a business, and key elements of that business are attracting traffic and trading in at least some of the information users disclose. In fact, even as the company rolled out its new privacy tools, it prodded people to change their privacy settings to expose their personal information and posts to the entire Internet. Unless they reject the new default settings imposed by Facebook, everything they say on the network and much of their information will be available to anyone searching through Google, Yahoo or other search engines.

These moves make sense from Facebook's perspective (assuming the public puts up with them). But for users, the lesson is that Facebook and other sites will not guard their personal information. To the contrary, such data are currency to the operators of social networks, and it's up to users to watch their own wallets.

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