Facebook’s privacy changes aren’t a get-out-of-jail-free card

“Recommended” settings still expose too much.

The recent simplification of privacy settings on the social networking site Facebook is too little, too late.

The Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, may have said in 2008 that privacy control is "the vector around which Facebook operates", but he soon showed what he meant by that when he relaxed privacy rules, making more and more members' personal information publicly available on the internet, and with a deliberately opaque and complex system of privacy settings for users to grapple with.

By January this year, Zuckerberg and his firm's approach to members' privacy was becoming clear, as he said in an interview that society had changed, and that Facebook was changing its default privacy settings to reflect that change.

In other words, people no longer wanted privacy.

"We view it as our role in the system to constantly be innovating and be updating what our system is to reflect what the current social norms are," he said, adding that the company needed to "always keep a beginner's mind and what would we do if we were starting the company now, and we decided that these would be the social norms now and we just went for it".

So Facebook changed the default privacy settings for its 350 million-odd members, and was then rather surprised that there was a huge backlash. It seemed it had misread -- or invented -- the new "social norms". Far from Zuckerberg's insistence that people aren't bothered about privacy any more, privacy advocates, the media and, indeed, Facebook's own users disagreed.

 

Turn on, opt out

The Electronic Privacy Information Centre, in association with eight other groups, filed a complaint with the US Federal Trade Commission in December 2009 urging the regulator to open an investigation into Facebook's new privacy settings.

Facebook's privacy modifications "violate user expectations, diminish user privacy and contradict Facebook's own representations", according to the 29-page complaint, which accused the world's number one internet social networking company of engaging in unfair and deceptive practices.

"More than 100 million people in the United States subscribe to the Facebook service. The company should not be allowed to turn down the privacy dial on so many American consumers," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Centre, in a statement.

Meanwhile, one group of users set up 31 May as Quit Facebook Day. Almost 23,000 people have signed up to the cause.

Facebook may have announced very recently that it has made it far easier to control the privacy settings for users, but it is unlikely to appease all of the privacy agitators. For one thing, the new "recommended" privacy settings expose data such as status updates to "everyone" and photos and birthdays to "friends of friends".

A poll of 650 Facebook users by the security company Sophos, in the wake of the latest privacy settings changes, found that 93 per cent would prefer it if you had to "opt in" to sharing personal data, compared to just 6.8 per cent who don't mind that it's currently an "opt-out" system.

The Staggers has looked before at the issue of opting in versus opting out in a privacy context, and indeed made the point then that "opt-out" schemes are dodgier than a three-bob note, because users don't always read the small print and might not realise exactly what they are getting into.

 

"Spaghetti jungle"

Don Smith, vice-president of engineering and technology at the security firm SecureWorks, says it's not just Facebook that is likely to come under increasing scrutiny in this area.

"For some significant time, privacy advocates have been warning of a collision between social networking sites and the consumer," Smith says: "that the penny would finally drop on who actually owns the data on sites such as Facebook and the implications on data visibility.

"Interestingly, Facebook's apparent disregard for the privacy of their end users has usefully brought this debate into the public domain.

"However, there are mounting concerns that others aren't taking privacy issues seriously," he says. "Google, first with Buzz and more recently with the revelations around data collection from their street-view cars, is demonstrating some of the same disregard for privacy which led to today's Facebook announcement."

Meanwhile Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos, had this to add: "It's good news that Facebook has responded to user pressure and made it simpler to control what information you share with who -- it was a spaghetti jungle of options before.

"But they have missed an opportunity to address the real issue, and regain the trust of those people who are concerned that Facebook doesn't take privacy and the safety of its users seriously enough."

What all companies need to get into their DNA is the realisation that many users care deeply about privacy, especially when they realise exactly what they are sharing, and with whom. Zuckerberg and his ilk need to understand that a disregard for privacy is most definitely not the new "social norm".

Jason Stamper is NS technology correspondent and editor of Computer Business Review.

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

Photo: Getty
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On the important issues, Louise Casey all too often has little to say

Far from moving the debate on, this new report on integration adds little to the report I commissioned in 2001. 

For 15 years, “numerous government reports on community cohesion and integration have not been implemented with enough force or consistency” concludes Louise Casey’s review of  integration.  The government’s lukewarm response suggests their effort will be as “diluted and muddled” as all the rest.

There’s a deeper reason why governments shy away from the measures that are needed. The report's wealth of data sets out a stark if sometimes contestable picture of a divided society.  But no amount of data can really bring the lives of our fellow citizens to life. As the Brexit vote underlined, this is now a nation divided by class, geography, education, wealth, opportunity and race. Those divisions colour the way we live our lives, the way we see problems in society, the relations we have with others, and our political choices. The report, like many before it, stops short of setting out that reality. It’s easier to pretend that most of us pretty much agree on most things; but just few people don’t agree and they must be the problem. Predictably, much of the early coverage has focussed on the Muslim community and new migrants. If only it were so easy.

According to Casey “in this country, we take poverty, social exclusion, social justice and social mobility seriously” and we do it “across political divides”. Apparently “creating a fair, just society where everyone can prosper and get on” is a cornerstone of British values. Yet for page after page the report chronicles the serial failure of this benign consensus to tackle educational under-performance, and economic and racial disadvantage. If we all agree, how come we haven't done anything about it?

These problems are not certainly easy to solve, but more lip service is paid to tackling them than effort. The practical material issues documented here need addressing, but punches are pulled when hard answers are needed. Given the dramatic impact of mass migration on cohesion, is integration possible while current rates of immigration persist? Can we find the political will to tackle poverty and disadvantage when those who might benefit from the effort are divided against each other by suspicion, race, geography and values? After all, rather than progressive policies producing a cohesive society, social unity is the precondition for the introduction of progressive policies.

We don't actually actually agree on what our “fundamental values” mean in practice. We can all sign up to democracy and the rule of law, but as soon as those are put into practice – see the court case on Article 50 – we are divided. When judges are popularly seen as “enemies of the people” and a vote in an elected parliament as a threat to democracy, in what sense are law and democracy fundamental?

Casey usefully highlights how treating homeless families equally, irrespective of ethnicity and length of residence can create the perception that minorities are being favoured over long standing residents. Our differing views on what is “just” and how “fairness” are defined can tear us apart. Is it fair to favour the newcomer over the indigenous? Is it just to put length of time on the waiting list above housing need? We often don't even acknowledge the legitimacy of other points of view, let alone try to find common ground.

The continual invocation of Britain and British values lends an air of unreality to the report.  Most people in England include British in their identity, but Englishness and English interests are of growing importance. In a worrying development, some areas of England  may be polarising between a white Englishness and an ethnic minority Britishness. Integration won't happen without a shared national story that combines a unifying national identity with the acceptance that we all have more than one identity that matters to us. Ignoring the reality of complex and multiple identities closes off one essential way forward.

None of this means that the criticism of some reactionary and occasionally dangerous ideas and practices in the Muslim community should be ignored and not confronted. But in a country where the established church opposes homosexual relationships and praise for Vladimir Putin's Russia is now mainstream politics it is hard to believe that all our problems can be reduced to the behaviour of a minority of a minority community.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University