Much Ado About Forthcoming FB Changes

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2010-03-29

Facebook Users Oppose Plans to Share Their Data Without Express Consent

Facebook's latest proposed privacy policy changes have some users and Web-savvy bloggers chewing their fingernails for fear of the leading social network's future plans, some of which may kick into action at the company's F8 developer conference next month.

Facebook March 26 said that it wants to begin working with partner Website publishers to offer a "more personalized experience at the moment you visit the site."

This happens to be code for letting third-party Websites access and use users' Facebook data without prior consent. In Web app parlance, that means no opt-in.

Today, people who use applications that connect to Facebook from Facebook Connect can find and interact with their friends. These connections require basic information about users, such as name and gender.

Facebook said, "In the proposed privacy policy, we've also explained the possibility of working with some partner Websites that we preapprove to offer a more personalized experience at the moment you visit the site."

According to the policy (here and with future changes redlined), Facebook will share general information about users, including your and your friends' names, profile pictures, gender, connections, and any content shared using the Everyone privacy setting.

Facebook would only introduce this feature with a small group of partners and would also offer plenty of controls to let users opt out.

Still, bloggers from TechCrunch and ReadWriteWeb, who expect that these changes are timed for the F8 conference April 21, immediately pounced on this as an example of Facebook trying to push the privacy boundaries. TechCrunch's Jason Kincaid noted:

"We've heard that select Facebook partners will now be able to look for your existing Facebook cookie to identify you, even if you never opted into Facebook Connect on the site you're visiting. Using that, the third party site will be able to display your friends and other key information. It's possible that these sites will also be able to display any data you've shared with 'everyone,' which is of course now the default option on Facebook."

Much Ado About Forthcoming FB Changes

Facebook did not respond to eWEEK for comment as of this writing, but a spokesperson explained the moves to ReadWriteWeb's Marshall Kirkpatrick, who added:

"It's nice to have one-click access to your Facebook info if you decide to share it with other sites - that's what Facebook Connect does - but the prospect of having that information automatically shared when you show up on another website seems like an idea that won't be well received by users. There's a big difference between opt-in and opt-out 'data portability.'"

The coming changes, though signaled by Facebook, could still inspire a privacy backlash the likes of which Google just faced with Google Buzz. In that instance, users weren't forewarned. They opted into Buzz and the next thing they knew, their contacts were plopped into their Google profiles.

Facebook is wisely warning users in advance, but consumers aren't used to having their data shared among multiple Websites without express consent.

That could touch off another controversy. Or, it could simply die on the vine like the outcry around Facebook's last round of privacy changes from December.

How this will shake out is unclear, but Facebook users are already complaining. As of noon EDT, more than 800 people have expressed their disapproval and frustration with these proposals after the original blog post went online Friday afternoon.

"My privacy is paramount to me and UNLESS I say so explicitly you have no right to provide my data to whoever you think is authorized," wrote Facebook user Harish Menon. "I don't care if it's your mom and you think she's trustworthy; I don't want my data to be given out to anyone unless I say so."

Some of Facebook's 400 million users tend to complain loudly about the smallest design changes.

But they stay at Facebook because, well, that's where their data and friends are. Quite the Catch-22.

Will users stay if Facebook offers their data to third-party sites, simply opting out of this connection? Or will they continue using the site until they find their data popping up elsewhere and raise hell?

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