Will Facebook’s Privacy Woes Grow in 2013?

    December 31, 2012

Facebook cannot win the privacy issue. The company thrives on allowing advertisers to target their potential customers with pinpoint accuracy, and that takes highly personal data.

Even if Facebook were to magically be able to provide the privacy settings that its critics want, incidents such as the outing of a Gay college student would still occur. That’s because the problem isn’t the platform – it’s people. The purpose of Facebook is to connect and be social with others. Expecting such a platform to accomodate secrets or systematically attempt to protect users’ privacy is foolish.

Have you been burned by Facebook’s privacy policies? Tell us about it in the comments.

This hasn’t stopped Facebook from trying to fight the losing battle. With multiple privacy lawsuits begin hurled its way, the company really has no choice but to refine its privacy policies in an attempt to please everyone.

Facebook’s year began with allegations that its switch to user Timelines violated a U.S. Federal Trade Commission agreement the company agreed to in November 2011. That agreement states that Facebook will provide “consumers clear and prominent notice” when sharing information beyond their chosen privacy settings.

The trouble is, Facebook privacy settings can often be confusing for users who aren’t computer-savvy, who make up many of the site’s 1 billion members. This is despite the fact that the website’s current privacy settings have already been simplified. Facebook privacy settings were once very in-depth and robust, allowing nearly every type of content to have its own privacy level. The site had to change it’s privacy settings, however, because users complained that the settings were too hidden, obscure, and confusing.

Again, Facebook cannot win. More changes were made to the site’s privacy options on December 21, 2012. The changes were yet another Sisyphean attempt to provide information anyone can use, yet still provide enough functionality to be effective.

To keep Facebook in check, the FTC issued a ruling in August that requires the site to obtain a privacy audit from an independent third party. The site escaped an FTC fine, but now has to be even more careful of each move it makes with regard to privacy.

This could be part of the reason Facebook just this month ended its site governance voting. The question for the coming year is whether Facebook will force privacy on its users so as to stave off lawsuits, or whether it will continue to try and allow users to control their own private Facebook lives.

Should Facebook trust users with more privacy controls, or protect users’ privacy for their own good? Let us know in the comments.

But that’s just the software. The reality behind the blue-lined pages of Facebook is, as it always has been, people. A private group isn’t so private when its contents are leaked by an unscrupulous member. The interplay between free speech, secrets, and human nature is where Facebook’s use as a public publishing platform comes into play.

In March of this year, a 12-year-old girl was bullied by school officials into giving up her Facebook password after posting a poor review of a hall monitor to her Facebook page. It was a perfect demonstration of how Facebook acts as a publisher for those who often do not have a voice in society.

However, unlike publishers of old, Facebook does not and cannot edit content for inappropriateness or libel. It’s a problem that can only be overcome by draconian content filters that would render Facebook useless or by a sense of personal responsibility that hasn’t, and may never, pervade the wider Facebook community.

So, as Facebook enters 2013 as a public company with yet more new privacy settings, it remains to be seen whether the world’s largest social network can survive the onslaught of privacy notions that don’t apply to a free-to-use, global social network. If the company’s recent test of allowing anyone to send Facebook message spam for $1 is any indication, it appears the site will have to keep using the trial-and-error method to work towards a solution that most likely does not exist.

How can Facebook’s privacy issues be solved? Let us know in the comments.