Facebook heard the outcry on user privacy and responded. The social networking phenomenon is retreating from changes it had made that virtually forced users to publicly share personal information. But the episode is another reminder that the bold new world of e-commerce and privacy often clash. User beware.
More than 400 million people around the world use Facebook to stay connected with family, friends and who knows who else. But the unprecedented network is also a business that relies on information to connect users to third-party services, partner websites and advertisers.
Earlier this month, privacy groups detailed in a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission that Facebook had made it harder for users to maintain their privacy on the site. For instance, Facebook made some information public that users had marked private, such as profile picture, current city, friend list, employment and educational details. Even when a user designated the information for "Friends Only," it was disclosed on other parts of the site such as friends' pages, community pages and to third parties that Facebook has a deal with.
On Wednesday, Facebook changed course. Founder Mark Zuckerberg announced the company will simplify privacy controls and make it easy for users to understand how their information will be shared. Facebook will also allow users to simply turn off "instant personalization" — a feature that shares personal data with partner websites.
Facebook is learning that users — even as they receive a service for free — still expect the company to honor its official principles promising users control over how their information is accessed.
But this lapse by Facebook is a cautionary tale of the easy way Web-based businesses can adjust their principles — and use information that customers store with them — to fit new opportunities. Old promises may be bent or tossed aside and looser privacy policies adopted. That's why people need to recognize that the data posted on Facebook and other social networking sites may not serve them in the future, no matter how private they try to make it.
Users can't control what Facebook does next, but they can control how much they share.