Why Facebook Wants to Open Your Data to the World Wide Web

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2009-07-02

Why Facebook Wants to Open Your Data to the World Wide Web

Facebook July 1 ushered in new rules designed to make user privacy more fine grained and less confusing, but analysts and bloggers see the move as an effort to generate more advertising revenue and fend off feisty Twitter.

The leading social network is collapsing several privacy pages and roughly 40 settings onto one page and plans to standardize the options for each setting so the choices are identical. Users will be able to designate whom they want to see what in their profile and can change those settings for each piece of content they post. To see a full presentation about the changes, see this slide show.

In short, Facebook is offering more control. Facebook in March began offering an "Everyone" option to let users share more broadly if they so chose. Last week, the company triggered its Publisher Privacy Control beta, which lets users decide who can see the content they publish on a post-by-post basis.

"For example, you may want to make some posts available to everyone, while restricting others to your friends and family," Facebook Chief Privacy Officer Chris Kelly said. "You should be able to make that decision every time you share something on Facebook, and soon you'll be able to do this."

Facebook would prefer users to select the "everyone" option to make their updates and information open to the world wide Web. Why does Facebook want to do this? After all, the social network has thrived by keeping data on its 200 million-plus users safely housed within the network, preventing it from being indexed by search engines from Google, Yahoo and Microsoft.

Facebook Product Manager Leah Pearlman told reporters and bloggers on a conference call that Facebook wants people to share more information publicly because it is hard for people to tell the difference between users with similar names when looking for their friends. ReadWriteWeb's Marshall Kirkpatrick noted that this is not a credible answer.

Instead, industry experts claim that by opening user data to the broader Web, Facebook will kick open the door to greater advertising exposure for its partners, which means more revenues for the company.

Analysts Weigh In on Facebooks Privacy Gambit


Facebook's effort has the best chance to succeed if it allows search engines to crawl its content. After yesterday's news, it is clear Facebook isn't opening all user data to search engines just yet. But it seems to be heading in that direction, as Forrester Research analyst Jeremiah Owyang told eWEEK:

"They're trying to make this play toward being more of a public company. They're becoming more public to expand their network and edge into Google's world. The more content they have that is public, the more benefit they will have from advertising. They want to serve their own ads and not go through Google, of course."

Gartner analyst Ray Valdez agreed, adding that Facebook's move was more of a publicity initiative than a privacy play. "They want to increase their footprint across the open Internet rather than being the closed, walled garden. I think they realize there is business value in getting users' content out there. At the same time, they're moving more slowly with this and being more transparent than they have in the past," Valdez said.

Facebook has another reason to be more open. The social network realizes Twitter, through which brief tweets stream in real-time to help users create immediate, if not vague connections, is a force to be reckoned with and is taking steps to keep ahead of the popularity curve.

Another reason for the latest privacy gambit is that it has grown into a full-featured social network, enabling users to share photos, videos, events and other content. Accordingly, users require greater granularity over their privacy than in the past. "They've grown topsy-turvy and it's time to clean house, so it's not just driven by advertising motivation or to compete with Twitter," Valdez said.

At the end of the day, the privacy features may confuse more users than it will help teach them how to control their data within the network.

"The privacy features are a step in the right direction, but we shouldn't expect that most consumers will know what to do or know the impacts or ramifications," Owyang said. "People often vocalize that they're concerned about Internet security, but when it comes down to doing something about it, most people leave themselves exposed. We shouldn't expect anything different in this case."

However, TechCrunch's Jason Kincaid believes Facebook's new tools, particularly the transition options to help users ease into divulging information, will prove disastrous, with people sharing things they perhaps don't want to or shouldn't.

See more about this issue on TechMeme here.


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