Home > New Technologies > Note to Facebook: Privacy is Personalization Too

Note to Facebook: Privacy is Personalization Too

Just last week, Facebook introduced “instant personalization” – a feature that extends your Facebook experience via familiar Facebook “plug-ins” (Activity Feed, the “Like” and “Recommend” buttons) – to partner websites such as yelp and nfl.com.  Already, the features are drawing much criticism – this time, from a Democratic quad of senators – Begich (AK), Bennet (CO), Franken (MN) and Schumer (NY) – who are urging Facebook to change its policies on sharing user data with third parties. Their letter to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg highlight three main concerns: Facebook’s continually elastic definition of what it considers personal information, the storage of Facebook user profile data with advertisers and other third parties, and the aforementioned “instant personalization” feature. The Senators acknowledge the FTC’s role in examining the issue but also advocate that Facebook take “swift and productive steps to alleviate the concerns of its users” while FTC regulation is pending.  On Monday, Senator Schumer followed up with an open letter that urges the FTC to investigate Facebook’s privacy practices.

Instant personalization is the latest Facebook feature to draw flak for its perceived impact on privacy.  It’s actually a very cool technology, designed for people who want to publicly share their likes and dislikes with their Facebook network.  It works by sharing certain Facebook profile data with a partner site.  The feature is personalization defined – every user using Facebook plug-ins on a partner site will have a different experience based on who they are friends with on Facebook.

A recent post on the Facebook blog describes the process:

“At a technical level, social plugins work when external websites put an iframe from Facebook.com on their site—as if they were agreeing to give Facebook some real estate on their website. If you are logged into Facebook, the Facebook iframe can recognize you and show personalized content within the plugin as if the visitor were on Facebook.com directly. Even though the iframe is not on Facebook, it is designed with all the privacy protections as if it were (emphasis added).”

Note the last sentence of that excerpt – it seems to suggest that as a Facebook user, you don’t have to worry about privacy whether you are on Facebook, or using a Facebook plug-in on another site.  So what’s the flap about?  What is fuelling the concerns with Facebook’s privacy practices – from the letter from Democratic Senators, to ongoing concerns from EPIC, to this thoughtfully penned article from a Facebook user who also happens to work for PC World?

I think it has to come down to notice – especially to users.  Facebook debuted “instant personalization” as an opt-in feature that automatically exposed a user’s Facebook profile data to partner sites. This has raised concerns with regulators, and certain Facebook users too – just take a look at the comments to this recent Facebook blog on the topic. To further complicate things, Facebook makes it particularly difficult to opt-out of the instant personalization features.

With this latest move, Facebook reaches outside its walled garden to extend its reach across the web – I almost think of it now as the world’s largest social platform (not network).  Consider for instance that it took Microsoft nearly twenty years to reach an install base of 1 billion for Windows; Facebook, now approaching 500 million users, will probably reach that number in less than a decade. As Facebook continues to evolve its platform strategy, its processes – particularly around informing users about what it plans to do with their profile data – must be better defined.  I think this goes beyond a static privacy policy – it may even involve engaging select users at the beta stage to pre-determine privacy concerns (like whether to launch a feature as opt-in or out).  Engaging trust with your ecosystem is essential for any platform company and when it comes to Facebook, users are an essential part of the ecosystem equation.

For the most part, Facebook users divulge data about themselves with the expectation that this data will be used on Facebook only; sharing that same data with other sites, even if it’s via a Facebook plug-in, is clearly not part of that expectation.  If Facebook wants to use user profile data for secondary purposes, it should first get the user’s permission to do so.  Such a system honors a user’s privacy preferences – which are also a personalization of sorts.  And when it comes to privacy, Facebook should be doing everything it can to ensure that this type of personalization is preserved.

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