Facebook is always in the news for something or other, it seems. But this week it’s in the news because of changes to its privacy model. Some of these changes are welcome and may even be effective, but many threaten to be disastrous for users’ privacy, to the extent they haven’t already been.
I myself do use Facebook, albeit reluctantly. It seemed like something I needed to do if I wanted to have any credibility as a cyberlawyer, to go there and see how it worked and what the appeal of it was. Because its appeal wasn’t at all obvious to me: there was nothing Facebook offered in its closed, proprietary way that basic Internet technologies didn’t offer in their more open and flexible way. I’ve never understood the point of closed systems. I didn’t get them back when AOL was the closed system of choice either. As an Internet user, why restrict yourself to the finite universe of content and users AOL or Facebook provides when there is an unlimited universe just beyond its borders in the Web at large?
But perhaps I’m not sufficiently crediting individual preference. Just as I preferred a large university to a small college, many others prefer the exact opposite. Small feels safe. Predictable. Knowable. Limited. So perhaps that’s why so many people have liked Facebook, because it felt like a quiet cul-de-sac away from the tumult of the information superhighway. A quiet place for just you and your friends. But maybe it’s not the quiet, out-of-the-way place people thought after all, thanks to Facebook’s inadequate privacy model.
There are lots of horror stories about Facebook users being “outed” in some unfortunate way in their real lives by something seen on their Facebook pages, like people being denied insurance coverage for looking too healthy, or even fugitives ending up captured because they posted about where they were. But interesting as those stories may be, what I want to focus on is the illusion of privacy Facebook fosters for its users, which thus enables so many to later be blindsided when content they thought was private is later proved not to be. In particular, I want to focus on the weakest link: friends.