Facebook’s Privacy Changes Set to “Instantly” Worry Its Users
By Ricardo Bilton '10, Staff Writer
Long ago, in a time before Facebook, Twitter and Google, author Stewart Brand said something that resonated with a future that had yet to be. Speaking before an audience of designers, programmers and engineers, Brand coined what became a central philiosophy for the legions of file-sharers and hackers that would emerge over the course of the next few decades: “Information wants to be free.”

This desire for freedom extends far and wide, touching, time and time again, on the most intimate of information — our own. The information of ours available on the Internet is, with few exceptions, there because we allow it to be. Within constraints, we present to the world an image of ourselves that we can tweak to our own desire. Two issues inevitably emerge. One: information’s desire to be free is in direct conflict with our desire to keep it confined, to limit it to certain eyes and certain contexts. Two: this information tends towards freedom because others, not us, seek to liberate it.

This other, most recently, is Facebook. At the company’s recent F8 convention, Mark Zuckerberg unveiled Open Graph, a set of tools and protocols meant to extend Facebook’s reach to every corner of the Internet. Rather than limit itself to just Facebook.com, Facebook’s ambitious plan is to extend its slippery tendrils far beyond it. This is where Facebook’s users — and their information — enter the fray. See, in order for Facebook’s plans to work effectively, it has to not only be present everywhere on the web but also take your information with it.

The plan looks like this: In a service euphemistically titled “Instant Personalization,” Facebook users are, the moment they navigate to certain websites, instantly connected to them. If a user likes a film or news article, this information is linked to the user’s Facebook page. The information flows the other way as well. Listing something in your “Interests” on Facebook allows websites like Pandora and Yelp to tailor your experience as you use them. These sites will then know what you like and seek to give you more of the same (but keep in mind that this is an opt-out system, meaning, like it or not, you are already signed up for it).

This is all in the interest of creating a smarter, social and more connected web. Facebook desires little more than to be at the center of the social web, and, in a best-case scenario, the web as a whole. What stands in their way, however, is that pesky little issue of its users’ privacy preferences. In order for sharing to be the default, Facebook has to demolish its own walls. As its users scramble to keep that information controlled and viewable only to select people, Facebook makes attempts to open up the information to everyone. Thus, we reach an impasse. Can you guess where the profit is?

Facebook knows the potential of the information goldmine that it currently sits on. Whereas Google focuses on the connections between pages, Facebook seeks to hone in on the connections between people, to understand how interests spread between friends. This is information that advertisers can then use to effectively predict what people will enjoy, and, in turn, they can cater advertisements to those preferences. The reason why all of this is so scary is because this information isn’t anonymous. It is attached to real people with real names and real desires to control how that information is used. Once Facebook opens up that information to advertisers and the world, it wrenches that control from its users, violating the spirit in which those users agreed to use the service in the first place.

The sobering fact of the matter here is that Facebook has become a central part of the lives of its 400 million users. Many of these users are completely uninformed of what is being done with their information — and that’s what is most worrying. Each and every time Facebook offers a new set of changes, one phrase rings more and more true: the only private information is that which you keep to yourself.

That said, to work against the newest of Facebook’s privacy tweaks, follow these steps, courtesy of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. In your privacy settings tab, click over to applications. There you will see a page for Instant Personalization. Click that and then uncheck the “Allow” button.” Then, navigate to the Application pages for “Microsoft Docs,” “Pandora” and “Yelp.” On all these pages, click “Block Application.” By doing this, you prevent these sites from linking to your Facebook account. The rub is that these are the only sites for which “Instant Personalization” is currently enabled. What this means is that each time Facebook adds a new partner, you must block the respective application that links Facebook to it.

Issue 24, Submitted 2010-04-29 21:07:40