The Social Network biopic that opens in theaters today chronicles Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and the beginnings of Facebook. The social network behemoth and its young and oft-embroiled founder and CEO are ripe fodder for Hollywood. But looking beyond the manufactured drama and snappy dialogue, we are right to be concerned about this company that knows and collects so much information about our personal lives: pictures, list of friends, location, religious and political preferences, sexual orientation, interests, and more.
Facebook started as a "dorm room project" whose founder's indifference to privacy is seen in instant messages from his Harvard years that surfaced earlier this year. In those messages he offers to reveal personal information he collected on thousands of his classmates, saying that people inexplicably trusted him with their personal information and derisively calling those trusting masses a word that cannot be printed.
While Facebook has matured to a company worth $30 billion with more than 500 million users, its privacy practices have continued to disappoint. In 2007, users unwittingly found themselves opted into the company’s intrusive “Beacon” web tracking program. Activities on other websites, like Overstock.com and Blockbuster, started showing up on users’ Facebook pages, leaking surprise holiday gifts, engagement plans, and other private information to friends and family. Bowing to user outrage, loss of business partners, and a class-action lawsuit, the company abandoned the program.
The Beacon blunder is just one chapter in the story. Facebook’s privacy-unfriendly practices have continued to make headlines many times in the past year. Its 2009 "privacy transition" eliminated some privacy controls, including the ability to minimize sharing sensitive data like friend lists and fan pages. These changes had serious real life implications for users. One college student’s sexual orientation was abruptly revealed to residents of his small southern town when Facebook’s privacy changes made public on his profile that he was a fan of his school’s LGBT organization. Others believe that they were not hired for positions because their support of particular organizations or political efforts on Facebook was made public.
Faced with mounting user concern and pressure from lawmakers, Facebook reversed some of the changes like allowing users to hide their list of friends from public view. Later, Zuckerberg admitted that Facebook had “missed the mark” and backpedalled again, limiting information sent to advertisers.
Despite these patches Facebook continues to miss the mark. Through the new “like” button Facebook is able to track users' Internet browsing habits (even if the user never clicks the button). Facebook’s “Instant Personalization” instantly shares information with partner websites when a user visits that site. And just last month, Facebook aggressively pushed the adoption of its new location service, Places, by making it easy to allow friends to check you in, but more complicated to fully opt out.
Facebook users should educate themselves about online privacy issues, and the ACLU and others are producing resources to help them to do this. But protecting personal information can be a herculean task when privacy policies are longer than the U.S. Constitution and users must click through dozens of privacy buttons to opt out of disclosure.
We are putting more information than ever online and into the hands of companies like Facebook. These “free” services may end up costing a very hefty price: control of our personal information.
I am looking forward to seeing The Social Network. But the real drama playing out today is not Facebook's or its founder’s past, but what will happen in the future to those of us who are entrusting Facebook with our personal information. The ending to that story will be determined by each of us and whether we do our parts to demand better control of our online information.