Lead articles

Facebook’s privacy crisis

Facebook is in trouble. Over the last two weeks, concern about the complexity of its privacy controls has led to a minor panic in the media. Suddenly, the website that has become the cornerstone of our social infrastructure has been branded as a runaway corporate behemoth. Its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, is drunk on “dreams of world domination”, seemingly out of touch with ordinary people.

This problem has been on the horizon for a long time, but has reached a tipping point with the most recent raft of changes. The negative publicity is a necessary catalyst for alterations that must be made, but it’s also made people jumpy. Talk of deletion and defection is beginning to undermine the system, but the hard fact remains that there is no viable alternative.

Privacy and control

This is not an issue of privacy though, but of control. Given the amount of feigned outrage by pundits who obviously don’t use the service as we do, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Facebook is the one that has taken away our privacy. This is not the case though; there are many websites more open than it, including Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. The difference with those is that people understand and have control over what is public and what is private.

When you publish a video on YouTube or post on Twitter, you’re very much aware that it’s public. Knowing the risks, you become more guarded about what you say and do. Facebook, on the other hand, is a fundamentally private domain. Everything about it, from arranging events to commenting on personal photos, implies that it is a should be secure from prying eyes.

Complexity and granularity

It’s easy to look back and see how this problem came about. When Facebook say that they are committed to privacy, I believe that they are genuinely sincere. However, the way that they have gone about securing our personal information lacks long-term thinking and has, as a result, not scaled.

The decision to allow a highly granular level of privacy control made sense given the complexity of human social interaction. For instance, some photos should be seen by everyone, but others are not suitable for colleagues and family. We make choices about how to share personal information every day, whether that’s in the physical or digital world. As a site built for everyone to use, Facebook is bound by the same social rules that we would expect to apply in a space where so many different groups of people are present.

As Facebook has now so painfully discovered, the price of granularity is complexity. As the amount of information on the site has increased, it has become impossible for most people to keep track of so many different controls. Whether Facebook has been naïve not to anticipate this or has planned it with malice does not matter; either way it needs to be fixed.

Solutions, value and conclusions

There is now only one viable course of action available to Facebook. They must act decisively to simplify their privacy controls or accept a future in which they become increasingly irrelevant. Designing a new system will be a difficult task that may result in a loss of granularity, but the value of clarifying its privacy controls and restoring trust in the site will be immeasurable.

Despite the concern, Facebook remains a valuable tool that has changed the way we live for the better. When the detritus of pointless games, adverts, fan pages and suggestions are so pronounced, it is easy to forget about the underlying functionality it provides. Facebook allows us to keep in touch with people without doing anything. When friends move address, get a new phone or change their email account, it doesn’t matter. Without Facebook, the world would be less connected and as clichéd as it might sound, less social.

It may be in trouble, but Facebook is something worth preserving. Zuckerberg and company have been handed their first serious test in their history. What they do now will plot them on a course to further success or a slow demise.

Philip Morton

Lead articlesScience

Leave a Reply