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

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.