At a web app developers’ conference on April 21, Facebook unveiled a breathtakingly ambitious program to reorganize the way personal information is shared on the Internet.
With 415 million users, Facebook offers web developers a powerful incentive to play ball, and they have flocked to embrace the new program. On opening day, Open Graph had 75 partners; a week later, 50,000.
Admirers believe Open Graph represents an important step in the development of the “semantic web,” in which net-connected computers move from simply executing instructions to understanding the information they are trading.
Detractors accuse Facebook of a Big Brotherish hijacking of users’ private data. I am a detractor, and unless something changes, I’ll be deactivating* my FB account.
I am no privacy freak. On the contrary, I believe the recent fetish for privacy often does as much harm as good, by giving governments a ready excuse to withhold information that ought to be in the public domain. However, I added personal information to my FB account for the sole purpose of letting people I designate as “friends” see it. I never intended FB to share that information with L.L. Bean, Wal-Mart, or Empire Theatres, so they could better customize my browsing experience. Nor do I want those sites trading information about my browsing habits or purchases with FB, which is exactly what Open Graph does.
My concern is heightened by FB’s vivid history of demonstrated indifference to privacy concerns. The Electronic Freedom Foundation has a chronology. Moneyquote:
Facebook originally earned its core base of users by offering them simple and powerful controls over their personal information. As Facebook grew larger and became more important, it could have chosen to maintain or improve those controls. Instead, it’s slowly but surely helped itself — and its advertising and business partners — to more and more of its users’ information, while limiting the users’ options to control their own information.
Each time FB changes its privacy options, it defaults to openness. Users who want to tighten their privacy settings must go into their account pages and negotiate an obscure and confusing series of settings. Even then, they will be unable to prevent FB from sharing basic information such as thei profile photo and their friend list. It’s clear that FB has made the settings deliberately hard to use.
Leo Laporte, my favorite tech guru, had a good (and accessible) discussion of FB’s privacy issues on the latest edition of his tech podcast with guests Gina Trepani and Jeff Jarvis. (The FB discussion is about 20 minutes in.) Their conclusion: if someone as tech savvy as Laporte can’t figure this stuff out, how is an ordinary user supposed to.
Trepani has published step-by-step instructions for how to reef down your privacy settings, as has the New York Times’ Gadgetwise blog.
Interested readers can find more discussion of these issues here, here, and here.
* “Deactivating” is a moderate option. It suspends your FB service, but saves all your data in case you later change your mind. People can no longer see an inactive profile, but they can still tag you in photos and invite you to events (although you won’t see the invitations). Even so, FB users wishing to deactivate must navigate a series of guilt trips, including picture of FB friends who will “miss you.” “Deleting” is the nuclear option. Your data is gone, and should you later re-join, you re-join from scratch.