This week saw Facebook push back against lingering concerns over how it uses member data, using resources such as its corporate blog to insist that individual privacy remains its utmost concern. While the social-networking site’s revenues and membership have only increased over the past year, a rising chorus of privacy groups and individual users has questioned the controls over personal information.
On June 18, a posting on the Facebook blog described how the social-networking site attempts to give users control over that information. “We recently launched simplified privacy settings in response to feedback that certain Facebook settings had become too complicated,” Monica Horak, an associate with the Facebook user operations team, wrote in a June 18 posting on the Facebook blog. “Facebook gives you two ways to [control] what information you share with applications and Websites.”
The first involves a permissions dialogue box that pops up whenever an application is accessed for the first time, asking for permission to access personal information. The second is Facebook’s privacy settings page, which, among other controls, allows users to adjust how much of their data is accessible through their friends’ pages.
The blog posting also describes the steps that Facebook takes to protect users from malware.
“Privacy settings aren’t an effective way to block malicious links and spam, so instead we’ve built other defenses to combat phishing and malware,” Horak wrote. “We have automated systems that work behind the scenes to detect and flag Facebook accounts that are likely to be compromised or sending spam.”
In addition, the posting details the workings of the “padlock” icon beside status updates, and how privacy controls work for minors.
The blog mention comes days after privacy advocates issued an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg June 16, detailing a six-point plan to give social-networking sites’ users more control over their personal information. Facebook responded to that missive with one of its own, stating, “We plan to continue to make control easy and effective for all the people who use our service and will continue to engage those groups and others in a constructive dialogue about these important issues.” Facebook’s letter refutes the advocates’ issues point-by-point, trying to portray the site’s more controversial features as designed primarily with users’ privacy and safety in mind.
Facebook’s letter also mentions “a new data permission model” that is “scheduled to launch to all developers in the coming weeks,” and points out an option to “completely turn off Platform applications and websites, so that none of [users’] information is ever shared with applications, even information otherwise available to everyone.”
Facebook’s latest back-and-forth with privacy advocates and government officials came after a May redesign, which introduced more granular controls for privacy but also, according to many complaints, ran the risk of exposing more user data to the larger world. On May 13, a European group of data protection authorities sent Facebook a letter complaining that alterations to the Website potentially “changed the default settings on its social networking platform to the detriment of the user.” Meanwhile, U.S. lawmakers urged the Federal Trade Commission to take action regarding social networking sites’ privacy controls.
That uproar forced Zuckerberg to backpedal. “Whenever we make a change, we try to apply the lessons we’ve learned along the way,” the CEO wrote in a May 23 op-ed in The Washington Post. “The biggest message we have heard recently is that people want easier control over their information. Simply put, many of you thought our controls were too complex. Our intention was to give you lots of granular controls; but that may not have been what many of you wanted. We just missed the mark.”
Rampant privacy concerns, of course, have the ability to potentially threaten Facebook’s long-term prospects-which could affect the site’s increasingly robust bottom line. Facebook could have earned as much as $800 million in 2009, according to unnamed sources quoted in a June 17 Reuters piece. If confirmed, that represents a marked increase from earlier estimates, including Facebook board member Marc Andreessen’s prediction that the site would make $500 million. While Facebook’s revenue and market presence has led to clamoring for an IPO from some quarters, the company remains privately held.