Facebook Asked; Now What Will It Do About Its Privacy Policy Change?

If nothing else, Facebook is demonstrating it learned a lesson from the Beacon situation.  Launched in 2007, Facebook Beacon became a magnet of criticism in part because the company sprung the program--which involved sharing user data with third parties--on unaware consumers.  So this time it's asking what consumers think before loosening the Facebook Privacy Policy.  And how did consumers respond?  The mystery isn't what consumers said but what Facebook will do with all the feedback it received. 

In a post to the Facebook blog, Michael Richter, Facebook's Deputy General Counsel, shared some of the proposed policy changes and noted, "We hope you'll take the time to review all of the changes we're proposing and share your comments."  Most of these changes seem uncontroversial, but then there's this: 

In the proposed privacy policy, we've also explained the possibility of working with some partner websites that we pre-approve to offer a more personalized experience at the moment you visit the site. In such instances, we would only introduce this feature with a small, select group of partners and we would also offer new controls. 

This functionality, which is part of Facebook Platform, is quite similar to the way Beacon worked, only this time Facebook is asking for feedback rather than simply implementing changes.  The specifics contained within the proposed privacy policy state (in part and with my comments): 

In order to provide you with useful social experiences off of Facebook, we occasionally need to provide General Information about you to pre-approved third party websites and applications that use Platform at the time you visit them (if you are still logged in to Facebook). <Augie's Note: This means if you're logged into Facebook and visit a site Facebook has pre-approved, some your data will be shared by Facebook.>  You can also remove any pre-approved website or application you have visited here [add link], or block all pre-approved websites and applications from getting your General Information when you visit them here [add link].  <Augie's Note:  This means the program is opt-out rather than opt-in--data will be transmitted without your express approval.>

It's possible and even likely that these features could be quite useful to consumers, but in the absence of details, examples, or even a list of potential partners, the reaction has been substantial and uniform: The combination of data sharing and opt-out is getting a thumbs down.  

As of my writing of this blog post, 956 comments have been posted to the Facebook blog.  I cannot view all 956, but the dozens that are accessible range from concerned ("Explicit OPT-IN is the only acceptable option" and "I need to be able to explicitly give MY permission to any additional web sites asking for my information") to the outraged ("screw you facebook" and "Facebook, are you trying to suck?").  (Some other comments were even more unprintable.)  

I believe I am safe in surmising that 99% of the comments received are negative toward the proposed change.  The questions is: Where does this leave Facebook?  It's asked; it's received input; how will Facebook reflect this input in its privacy policy changes? 

On the one hand, it could unilaterally make the proposed change and let the cards fall where they may.  Many of the comments to Facebook's blog threaten departure if these changes are implemented, but will consumers give up their connections, photos, and social games so easily?  And given the strong reaction to the proposed change, would the company find partners willing to be early adopters for this new Platform functionality if Facebook ignores the feedback and proceeds as planned?

Or, Facebook could change their privacy policy so that Platform would only work on third-party sites with explicit opt-in (which is, essentially, no change from today with Facebook Connect).  This would likely reduce participation and decrease Platform's appeal to partners.

It will be interesting to see how Facebook deals with the feedback it is receiving.  The company helped create a world of greater transparency and consumer empowerment;  now it has to live in that world.



If Facebook continues to

If Facebook continues to breech what users percieve to be their privacy they will run into a lot of problems. However, being one of the largest social network sites many people now rely on Facebook for more than personal interaction, but for business purposes as well. When used as a business device consumers may not feel that invasion of privacy is as essential.

Michelle, Thanks for the

Michelle, Thanks for the comment. I agree for the most part, although I think it depends upon what you mean about "Business purposes." Much like LinkedIn and Twitter, people who use Facebook for business tend to share the sorts of things that they wish to broadcast and are not associated with the same level of privacy concerns. But, if businesses cross a theoretical line (that is different for each user) when using Facebook and Facebook data, it can easily be perceived as spam, creepy or intrusive.

All of this reminds me how early we still are in the social media era. Mistakes like Beacon and Google Buzz's privacy foibles and the dialog on the Facebook blog post (currently up to 1138 comments, almost entirely negative) demonstrate that there's plenty of room for learning, maturing, and (sadly) mistakes to be made in social media.

Partners will be wary..

I can't imagine that Facebook will proceed as planned after such strong negative feedback. Any potential partner for Facebook will be wary of any association with the somewhat-intrusive information sharing. I just feel that those who have responded so negatively at the proposal will, in turn, respond just as negatively to the companies that are associated with it. It just seems that there would be no rationale for Facebook to continue these efforts.

Joe, I agree it is absolutely

Joe, I agree it is absolutely impossible to imagine they'd proceed as planned. In fact, you have to think Facebook expected this response. It make me wonder if they have more modest plans but thought they'd float a straw man suggestion that was more agressive in order to guage reaction. I don't mean to make Facebook sound manipulative--I think they're trying to be honest about the changes and open to users' input--but the response seems so obviously predictable, doesn't it?

Door in the face


Yes it certainly seems like it could be a 'door-in-the-face' strategy. Facebook could be proposing this now so that a less intrusive policy can be accepted later. I can't say that I disagree with the strategy, as Facebook will appear to have responded to their consumers' feedback and propose an alternative that better addresses the consumers' concerns. It will make consumers perceive that their feedback actually influences Facebook's policy decisions, whether or not Facebook did this intentionally in the first place.