What The Movement Against Facebook’s Privacy Policy Is Really Saying About The Hype

This is a cross-blog post from Network Solutions Solutions Are Power website that I guest wrote. Originally posted on SolutionsArePower.com on June 3, 2010.

What The Movement Against Facebook's Privacy Policy Is Really Saying About The HypeIn my last post, I talked about how privacy issues were affecting the way people view their social networks. In this post, I’d like to talk about the growing movement that is happening that is affecting one specific social network: Facebook.

Why Facebook? It’s one of the largest social networks in the United States now and in light of its recent movement towards becoming more “open” to sharing the data and enhancing the user’s social graph, one thing that it has seemed to have forgotten is asking the users for permission to do so. You can read a live blog account of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, on ReadWriteWeb here, but suffice it to say, the intent here was for the social graph to allow the web to make more semantic connections with users so that we find more it more relevant to us. It’s a nice gesture…until people realized that the services utilizing Facebook’s new features were sharing their personal data across to services like Pandora and Microsoft Docs, often without understanding how to opt-out of posting that data easily. It seemed that Facebook’s efforts to maintain control was by making it extremely difficult to simply opt-out or properly manage your privacy settings.

Explore the maze just to update your privacy

Now we’ve heard horror stories about people shocked to hear that their settings have been changed unexpectedly to make more information public when, originally, it was set as private. It remains unknown whether those cases could properly be attributed to Facebook’s tweaking of the system so I won’t speculate on the blame, but my point here is that the experience just to update your settings can be rather convoluted. Just look at this infographic created by The New York Times showing you the complex maze in order to adjust the slightest thing.

Infographic: Facebook's Privacy Setting (by The New York Times)

So by now you’ve looked at the infographic, right? Did you try and figure out how to adjust your privacy setting? Are you lost? Yeah, so are most people. In an analysis of this chart, Dan Nosowitz from Fast Company made this comment:

Exceedingly complex controls like those Facebook offers for privacy always struggle with balance. Keep things too simple, and everyone can understand them but advanced users won’t have enough control to tweak the settings the way they want to. That leads to Facebook making decisions for people–a dangerous system. But if you provide every conceivable permutation of privacy setting, you’ll confuse the hell out of the people who just want to make one tiny bit of information invisible. That leads to users thinking, “screw it.” And that comes to the same result: Facebook makes decisions for people.

In my last post, I wrote about Tim O’Reilly’s blog post where he cites that he supports Mark Zuckerberg’s effort to make the web more “open” and data public, but that he thinks that this is a learning challenge for him. By that, he means that entrepreneurs and startups need to take these risks and go forward and sometimes reverse course in order to find the right balance needed to satisfy the company’s mission and appease its users. However, in the above infographics case, Nosowitz thinks that Facebook hasn’t done this yet, until probably recently. While Nosowitz’s article about Facebook’s privacy wasn’t published until May 13, 2010, some simpler settings have emerged from Facebook. But if these new options haven’t condensed the above infographic into something more streamlined, people are still going to get increasingly frustrated about the service and still be confused – leading more to believe Nosowitz’s assumption: that Facebook is making decisions for people.

The protest grows

Typically when Facebook has made changes to the site, whether it was a redesigned homepage or some new features that millions of their users disagree with – including updates to the Terms of Service, people took to cyberspace and protested by “demanding” changes be made. Sometimes there were no changes and other times, Facebook acquiesced and reverted back to their old ways. These demonstrations usually occurred on blogs and on Facebook through the use of the group feature. It was quite entertaining and you didn’t hear a lot of commentary about deleting your Facebook account. But now, somehow this time was entirely different. After this year’s F8 developers conference, there was more uproar concerning the privacy of user data and how Facebook had a laissez-faire view about keeping our content hidden without our consent. Allegedly, even Mark Zuckerberg believed content published on the web in a social network was completely open – privacy be damned.

We're Quitting Facebook

As a result, technology influencers and those upset over the recent direction taken by Facebook have orchestrated campaigns designed to accomplish one: deletion of Facebook accounts to send a message to the social network. One such campaign took place on May 31 and was called We’re Quitting Facebook. As of this writing, over 30,000 individuals have “committed” themselves to deleting their accounts on Memorial Day. Whether or not this number actually is true remains a point of speculation, but suffice it to say, people are genuinely upset and have resigned themselves to cutting themselves free from the addictive social network. Their argument is that Facebook is misleading on its good intentions and there aren’t any fair choices – by which the organizers cite a Wired.com article that highlights that it seems Facebook holds a monopoly (or with MySpace it’s a duopoly) in the United States when it comes to great social networks.

Another protest is also set to take place on June 6 around the world (virtually, of course) called Facebook Protest that some are also calling “D Day”. While striving to achieve the same goal as the We’re Quitting Facebook campaign, this protest’s methods include simply boycotting Facebook to show the social network the power of the crowd. This means logging out of Facebook completely and making sure that you’re not clicking on any “like” button on a site or sharing content through any Facebook-infused application or service. While not as extreme as the We’re Quitting Facebook protest, this one does have a considerable following of more than 4,000 fans on Facebook (ironic, yes) and close to 2,000 followers on Twitter. It has also been picked up by some local news affiliates and other publications.

Whether Facebook will notice thousands of protesters out of millions of its total users boycotting or deleting their accounts will be interesting. How will the service handle the fact that thousands will stop using their service for a whole day? Granted, Facebook is quite addictive, but will 24 hours of non-activity be a detriment to their business or revenue?

If you’re charging up that hill, you better know what’s on the other side

It’s one thing to say that a lot of people will be deleting their accounts, but one must also look on the other side to see how effective that reach would be:

  • Facebook has over 400 million active users
  • 50% log into Facebook on any given day
  • People spend over 500 billion minutes/month on Facebook
  • About 70% of Facebook users are outside the United States
  • Two-thirds of comScore’s U.S. Top 100 websites and half of comScore’s Global Top 100 websites have integrated with Facebook
  • More than 550,000 active applications currently on Facebook Platform
  • More than 250,000 websites have integrated with Facebook Platform
  • More than 100 million Facebook users engage with Facebook on external websites every month

Those statistics are quite daunting so for most of the protesters to avoid anything Facebook-related across the Internet is probably a near-impossibility. Just by reading this blog post, you might be tempted to click on the “like” button or maybe even share this article on Facebook. You just can’t get away from it!

Compete.com: Facebook site traffic to privacy setting page

In gathering information about this post, I came across this article on Compete that had an interesting graphic focused on how big was this hype surrounding Facebook privacy. What it graphed out was the amount of site traffic towards Facebook’s privacy page during each of the major issues that had people complaining about the openness of their data. As you can see, more people began visiting the privacy page since Facebook announced their profiles were going to be subject of searches by sites like Google and Yahoo, but subsequently, the traffic has since dropped to an average of 400-500,000 weekly unique visits. There wasn’t even a spike when a new ad platform was launched or even when Facebook announced a universal opt-out from their Beacon program. Granted this chart does not show recent issues surrounding privacy concerns once again plaguing Facebook, but could we expect another rise in traffic to the privacy settings page in light of a more simpler approach? Most likely.

Compete.com: Unique Visitors to Facebook.com

But how are we motivated towards going off the deep end and deleting our account? I don’t think that it’s entirely possible to do. In fact, in another Compete.com post, they doubt whether it’s even feasible for us to really “quit” Facebook. In the above graph, you can see that the average visits to Facebook have only gone up with the exception of February – March 2010 which displayed the most obvious drop in site traffic. But even looking at the different incidents that occurred with Facebook regarding privacy, more people overall are still visiting the site and using their service. So what effect will this really have against the Facebook protests? Probably not much.

Go ahead and quit, but we’ll find someone to take your place

One of the things that is probably highly anticipated is the opportunity to see how many people actually followed through with the We’re Quitting Facebook campaign. With over 30,000 people “committing” to follow through, the true test would be to see if everyone did, in fact, take part and remove themselves from the social network. Chances are that with one person quitting, there’s many more to take his or her place. VentureBeat reporter Paul Boutin wrote an article today where he noted:

If Facebook signups were to run at their usual pace today, probably not, based on today’s slow holiday traffic on the Internet  for every user who threatened to quit, there would be four or five new signups. Facebook averages 150,000 new members per day, the company has claimed. Quit Facebook Day signed up only 32,522 pledges, and it’s not likely that all of them actually quit.

This is definitely evident that with a large user base, in order for Facebook to truly notice a movement of significant caliber, the action would have to be extraordinary and substantial – meaning that more than a few thousand users would need to sacrifice themselves in order to really make a difference.

Regardless of the actions taking place now with the two protests and an updated privacy setting, one thing remains certain, the debate will remain the same. In addition, the hype may have been over-promoted about how people view the damage caused by Facebook’s lack of privacy and the uproar that accompanied it.

I’ll leave you with this video featuring Mashable’s co-editor Ben Parr and his debate with an intellectual property attorney and a government official from Canada on a Russian TV program where they discuss the privacy aspect – the video is in English:

So will you be abandoning Facebook or will you be sticking around waiting for the next issue to arise?

Photo Credit: Nick Winch / sxc.hu

By Ken Yeung

Ken Yeung is a journalist fascinated with the tech industry and internet culture. He's currently Flipboard's Assistant Managing Editor, overseeing news curation in technology, science, gaming and health. In addition to his day job, Ken's the co-host of "The Created Economy" podcast, examining the Creator Economy. In a past life, he was a former reporter for VentureBeat and The Next Web, covering tech startups, the industry's innovations and funding.