Facebook’s very public privacy problem

What’s the problem with Facebook and privacy? With two new sets of claims about Facebook privacy doing the rounds among my friends, both damaging to Facebook’s reputation, they seemingly just can’t get it right.

First up is the “I’m taking my privacy back” claim, where users are posting a status update instructing their friends to jump through a series of hoops to stay “privately connected with you”. This is comprehensively debunked by Snopes.

Second there’s the re-emergence of that old chestnut, the debate about copyright – there’s a good rundown about this on the Mumbai-based blog Firstpost. This morning, in response to that one, I saw friends posting cod-legal notices as Facebook status updates, reasserting their private, personal copyright claims. It’s another Urban Legend, as confirmed by Lifehacker.

Regardless of the veracity of each and every Facebook privacy scare, the topic is damaging for Facebook. Privacy is the itch that Facebook cannot properly scratch.

Even though a lot of these concerns are simply regurgitated FUD, Facebook can and should do something about it, because the situation has got to the point where the site is getting a bad reputation, whether or not this is justified. Protecting its brand is a good enough reason for Facebook to get proactive in addressing its users’ concerns on privacy.

The situation has become pretty grim: My perception is that Facebook’s privacy settings have changed too many times. I’ve actually given up bothering trying to keep postings “relatively private”: it is too much effort, and feels as if the settings are only going to change again in a few weeks/months. It appears to be hard to make anything “sticky” in Facebook: over the weekend, somehow I re-started getting notifications via email about new posts, despite having firmly switched this off.

The only solution is to be proactive. 

Facebook must act decisively in sorting out its privacy issues: this atmosphere of mistrust is hardly the stuff of long-term relationships. And although it’s the undisputed King of the Hill on Social Networking today, who can predict the future?

Here’s my suggestions on how Facebook can go on the PR offensive about security:
* Simplify the Privacy page and consider abandoning the “news feed” status for this page: users want brief, easy-to-understand information, fast
* Set all Facebook accounts to private by default – so that users have to explicitly agree to share content
* Get the Chief Privacy Officer out there on a media offensive, taking the approach that “yes, in the past we have done a poor job, but those days are over – and here are the proof points to help you believe that we’re serious.”
* News release it: make it official. A permalink to the news release is a very solid retort when this flares up again (as it will) and I’d happily link to it (probably in an IM) to reassure my friends, rather than send them to a Snopes page.

Simon Jones, Managing Director, OnPR, GmbH

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