Whenever a privacy issue arises in the Facebook landscape, it only draws the ire of a loud minority, comprised of the media that covers Facebook and a couple privacy organizations. But eventually, most Facebook users forget, and that is if they ever learned of the incident in the first place. I don’t expect the changes Facebook recently made to its terms of service to be any different.
If you didn’t hear (an ironic qualifier if you keep reading), this weekend, the New York Times broke a story making people aware that Facebook now looks at your data even after you’ve terminated your account.
While it’s very important the media doesn’t sleep on these issues, the anecdotal evidence suggests Facebook users don’t care about privacy. And they will continue basking in their ignorance until several of their identities (thousands or millions) become seriously compromised.
Historically, this privacy ambivalence has been the way of Facebook’s broad, general populace. Most Facebook users have never even heard of the Beacon Advertising incident back in 2007, when Facebook (and partner advertisers) began showing users’ buying behavior from partner sites. For example, if you bought movie tickets from Fandango.com, and you were logged into Facebook when your performed that action, a message stating that transaction would be made available to your Facebook friends.
Moveon.org, the political action committee, got a loud minority to sign a petition back then protesting Beacon, and it even caught the attention of 60 Minutes when they did a profile on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who had apologized for the incident.
After Beacon, Facebook did right by their users and offered an opt-out of “social ads.” Facebook also added robust security features that allow users to control who sees their profile information with great granularity.
So why don’t most Facebook users care about any of these developments?
Well, it depends on how cynical you are, but I believe most of them don’t know what’s happening and can’t be bothered to learn, either. I’m 25, and while you can count me amongst the core constituency that made Facebook the phenomenon it is today, my reading habits aren’t the same as the majority of my peers (which is to say many of them don’t read the news). As such, it’s great that Techcruch, The New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal report about privacy issues, but don’t expect many Facebook users to hear about it unless it’s broadcasted over a two minute YouTube clip or Jon Stewart takes a jab during the Daily Show.
I’m generalizing, of course, but it’s fundamentally the negative view I take of my generation, one that I’m sure many would argue against. The narcissistic tendency we have to enjoy sharing as much as possible will trump privacy concerns.
The second issue: to be fair, not much harm has been done by any change Facebook has ever enacted to the site. I can’t think of some massive data breach because Facebook mismanaged our data. At worst, during the poorly managed Beacon roll-out, a man’s engagement surprise was ruined when he bought a wedding ring at a Beacon partner site and that activity was published on his fiancee’s newsfeed.
The lax approach Facebook users have towards their data will be good and bad. It will be good for Facebook, as it will make it easier for the company to monetize the service. With Facebook Connect, Facebook users can take their data from site to site. Although Facebook
has been careful with that user data, the social network should start thinking about altering its terms to so it can glean search information that Facebook users perform at partner sites. It would help Facebook serve up more relevant ads that we’d actually click on to purchase goods.
It will be bad in that I can imagine a scenario where one of these partner sites, which don’t have the technical and monetary resources of Facebook, mismanage our data and we experience a breach. Yet the only way in which such an unfortunate incident would wash away Facebook user ignorance would depend on its size. It would need to be big enough (and costly enough) for the majority to finally learn just what’s at stake.