Facebook and the Price of Privacy

Facebook Conference :: Facebook Connect

Late last year, Facebook launched a new system called Facebook Connect. Haven’t heard of it? Facebook probably thinks that is a good thing.

Facebook Connect is a system that allows third-party sites to access your Facebook information and post your web behavior to your Facebook account. Sound more familiar? Facebook’s first attempt to integrate with third-party sites via their “Beacon” system was received with such hostility that it eventually was disabled after Facebook was overwhelmed with privacy complaints. The most memorable case was probably that of a young man who purchased an engagement ring on Overstock.com, only to later find his purchase broadcasted to his friends via his Facebook newsfeed — including his girlfriend. Facebook Connect, however, promises to be different, if for no other reasons than someone thought it might be a good idea to ask users for permission to access their data and post on their newsfeeds. Still, there is a lot of buzz in the blog-o-sphere, comparing Connect to Beacon and weighing the probability of a reprise.

Yeah, yeah… so Facebook is awful at privacy. Am I a horrible person if I think we should cut Facebook a break?

It is true that Facebook, still not having grown out of its Dot-Com training wheels, has repeatedly provided its users with a poorly scaled system that exudes a level of touchiness throughout the entire application and server stack. We have all come to accept the connection resets, “Unknown Errors”, and a security policy that is iteratively enhanced with newly unused “privacy” features. Yet the moment these problems are connected to something that is commercial (and ostensibly at your expense), the Facebook user base is quick to react.

The heart of this problem may lie at the crossroads of new and old business. New business ventures that wholly exist on the Internet (read Google, Facebook, or Flickr) have developed a consumer-brand relationship that not only flattens much of a traditional consumer-brand hierarchy, but in doing so, also lowers the expected level of service: “I’m not paying for it, so I understand that it is broken. I will just come back later.” In a sense, we forget that these are businesses.

Many people have bemoaned the plague of Facebook Application requests that have accompanied the new Facebook Platform. These complaints, however, never reached the level of fury with which privacy advocates attacked Beacon. It is worth pointing out that much of the problems that Beacon experienced are mirrored in the Facebook Platform (the system used by Facebook application developers to bring us jems like Scrabulous and Zombies). But arguably due to the “new business” models that many of the small Dot-Com shops building Facebook Applications are following, the Facebook Platform has evolved naturally and avoided joining Beacon in the PR trash heap.

As far as privacy goes, did Facebook screw up? Yes. Should they do better? Yes. Did we all ignore their terms of service? … Uh, yes.

I would argue that when Beacon began serving clearly commercial entities at our expense, Facebook temporarily lost the consumer relationship privileges of its “free” product status. Companies like Overstock.com and Blockbuster further exacerbated the situation by providing canned representations of basic consumer activities. The way they integrated their sites was boring and obnoxious at best. The take home message: provide services that are unique and creative, that draw people into deeper relationships with your products and brand. Blockbuster seemed to be doing just this with MovieClique (a kind of “let’s plan a movie night with my friends” application), albeit not through Beacon, but through an application using the Facebook Platform.

Will we see a repeat of the privacy debacle with Facebook Connect? So far the answer is no, but there is certainly room for abuse. The most popular uses so far are with other “free” websites like Joost and Vimeo, but we will have to see what happens as more obviously commercially minded corporations come online.

If you actually take Facebook out of the picture, you can see how this conversation has more to do with the third-party companies than our favorite social networking site. One of the quickest growing activities on the Internet is Flash based games, typically sponsored by some corporation. “Get the Glass” is an amazing game that is part of the larger “got milk?” campaign, and serves as a perfect example. It demonstrates a services oriented aesthetic that both serves that corporate interest while appropriately compensating its users for their time (the game is beautiful, and quite fun). I suspect that if the Beacon companies handn’t floundered in simplistic viral models, and instead provided quality experiences that didn’t result in flooding newsfeeds, users would have been delighted with the new features, and never once stopped to think about the privacy implications. After all, our privacy is valuable, but we have been trained to sell if for an awfully low price.

Jed Brubaker

Jed Brubaker's background involves professional and academic work in the social sciences, marketing, technology, and the arts. He received a B.S. in Psychology from the University of Utah, and is a former master's candidate in the interdisciplinary Communication, Culture and Technology (CCT) program at Georgetown University. His current research interests included digital identity and anonymity, Internet culture, and computer mediated communication. Read more on his blog at www.whatknows.com.