Several users who have tried to leave Facebook have posted unflattering tales of their experiences online, with some saying it has taken weeks or months to extract themselves entirely from the popular social networking service.
A Facebook spokesperson told eWEEK that users can remove their information from Facebook by deactivating their accounts. Once a user deactivates the account, their profile becomes inaccessible on the main Facebook service, and the data is kept by Facebook only to allow easy reactivation.
For those users not interested in any further relationship with the site, they may delete their profile, which means their name and all e-mail addresses associated with the account are deleted from Facebook servers.
What Facebook doesn’t explain in its statement, or in its help section, is the hoops users have to jump through to delete their accounts.
Steve Mansour, a programmer from Canada, wrote a post on his Web site that details a protracted back-and-forth process with a customer service person. Ultimately, Mansour was told he had to delete each of his mini-feeds, wall posts, incoming and outgoing messages and other bits of profile information.
What Mansour learned was this: You can remove yourself from Facebook, but only after you go into your account and manually delete each detail, an inconvenient process for a site dedicated to making it easier to find people.
Why is it so hard to remove oneself from Facebook? Why isn’t there a simple button that allows users to “nuke” their profiles from the site?
Social networks use personal data to target consumers with digital advertisements that play off of their online behaviors, a lucrative but challenging ad niche that Google, Yahoo and Microsoft are struggling to figure out.
Facebook’s ad system, Beacon, ran into trouble earlier this year as an opt-out service that informed users’ friends about their online activities. Chastened by complaints and privacy watchdogs, the company made Beacon purely opt-in.
By making it difficult for users to break free, Facebook could increase the time that consumers’ data is nestled in its servers, leaving the door open for more ad opportunities.
Getting Stopped at the Door
Mansour told eWEEK he thinks something “fishy” is going on because while other social networks leverage the personal data and content that users add, Facebook seems to try harder to keep users from leaving.
“[Other sites] don’t resort to ‘stopping us at the door’ when we want to leave, and that’s where our problem with Facebook comes in,” Mansour said. “They make it very clear that they are granted full, unalienable rights to everything you put on Facebook, and that once it’s on their servers, they own the rights to it forever.”
Mansour’s blog post inspired Facebook user Magnus Walling to set up a Facebook group site, “How to permanently delete your facebook account,” with instructions on what to do to get oneself removed. The site has more than 6,700 members.
With all of the hullabaloo, Facebook said it is changing its approach to deactivation and deletion.
“We are working to better explain the simple deactivation process, and to ease the deletion process for those who want their personal information removed from our servers,” said a Facebook spokesperson, who would not provide more detail.
In the meantime, Facebook may shoulder the brunt of more privacy complaints. Electronic Frontier Foundation Staff Technologist Peter Eckersley said the people who are complaining are not willing to live in a world where they can be “databased with impunity. The more Facebook refuses to delete accounts, the more people will want them deleted.”
Eventually, Mansour said, the story could have bigger implications. While Facebook may not be doing anything untoward with the user data, it’s still on the Internet, where a hacker can grab the data and do with it as they wish.
“While this applies to every other social network, of course, it’s again that Facebook has collected such specific personal data about each user [down to their coordinates] that makes this a much scarier proposition than, say, someone hacking into MySpace and stealing all of someone’s photos and musical preferences,” he said.