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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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.