It has been said time and time again that with much freedom comes much responsibility. This week's settlement between the social media giant, Facebook, and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission illustrates this point clearly.
I've written here on WebRev extensively that although I use and like Facebook, I'm often upset with their lack of respect for user privacy, and concerned about the ignorance of the users about their own privacy, namely (according to a PR Newswire release):
- In December 2009, Facebook changed its website so certain information that users may have designated as private – such as their Friends List – was made public. They didn't warn users that this change was coming, or get their approval in advance.
- Facebook represented that third-party apps that users' installed would have access only to user information that they needed to operate. In fact, the apps could access nearly all of users' personal data – data the apps didn't need.
- Facebook told users they could restrict sharing of data to limited audiences – for example with "Friends Only." In fact, selecting "Friends Only" did not prevent their information from being shared with third-party applications their friends used.
- Facebook claimed it had a "Verified Apps" program it used to certify the security of certain apps. It didn't.
- Facebook promised users that it would not share their personal information with advertisers. It did.
- Facebook claimed that when users deactivated or deleted their accounts, their photos and videos would be inaccessible. But Facebook allowed access to the content, even after users had deactivated or deleted their accounts.
- Facebook claimed that it complied with the U.S.- EU Safe Harbor Framework that governs data transfer between the U.S. and the European Union. It didn't.
Because of it's repeated careless and outright abuses of the privacy of its users internationally, Facebook has now been forced into an agreement with the FTC, which includes that it must (according to the same presser): "...get consumers' approval before it changes the way it shares their data, and requires that it obtain periodic assessments of its privacy practices by independent, third-party auditors for the next 20 years."
Did you catch that last part? TWENTY YEARS! Do know how long that is in technology years? Most people didn't know what the "internet" was 20 years ago. In another 20 years, most people may not remember what Facebook is, but the FTC will stil be monitoring their activity. What's worse is that a new precedent has been set which ALLOWS the FTC to monitor the databases and activity of social networks.
Facebook has enjoyed an enormous amount of success. Unfortunately, the irresponsible actions and incessant immaturity of its staff has probably destroyed the state of relative freedom that allowed it to achieve this success, and would allow others to achieve similar levels of success. Yes, with much freedom comes much responsibility, and unfortunately, Facebook has abused that freedom, and we have all lost that freedom.
On the plus side, it may be easier to protect your information on Facebook in the future, because most of the changes will now be opt-in. Be careful, however. Facebook's business model has not changed, and it is unlikely that it will. It works for the (paying) advertisers, not for those who use its services for free, and it is likely that it will come up with more sophisticated ways of mining its data in a way that will continue to be useful to its paying customers.