More (negative) attention to Facebook’s privacy practices

With a two-part series on TPM Cafe’s Table for One, an article in the Mercury News on Christmas Day, and the recent settlement of a suit on text messaging, Facebook continues to become a focus for discussion of privacy issues. To some extent this is a consequence of their size and success: they’re a high-profile target. Behind this, though, lurks a pattern of Facebook unilaterally making decisions that compromise user privacy, apologizing, addressing the most egregious aspects while leaving the rest in place — and then repeating.

The TPM Cafe piece is by Ari Melber of The Nation, and starts out

When one of America’s largest electronic surveillance systems was launched in Palo Alto a year ago, it sparked an immediate national uproar. The new system tracked roughly 9 million Americans, broadcasting their photographs and personal information on the Internet; 700,000 web-savvy young people organized online protests in just days. Time declared it “Gen Y’s first official revolution,” while a Nation blogger lauded students for taking privacy activism to “a mass scale.” Yet today, the activism has waned, and the surveillance continues largely unabated.

He goes on to discuss the Beacon fiasco in terms of Facebook’s past behavior, quotes some of my faves (danah boyd and a CMU study that I believe is by Alessandro Acquisti), and in his follow-on post ties Facebook — and web services more generally — to a national surveillance state. People familiar with the privacy space won’t see anything new here; what’s significant is that this is another example of Facebook privacy making the jump out of the tech ghetto to the national political scene: TPMCafe’s the extension of Joshua Micah Marshall’s Talking Points Memo, a DC-based progressive political blog that sees itself as a muckraker in the positive sense of the word and has been very active in helping uncover and publicize recent political scandals.

The lawsuit settlement specifically relates to Facebook continuing to send text messages to cellphone numbers after they had been recycled. Facebook didn’t admit any wrongdoing, but did agree to “make it easier for recipients of text messages to block future messages originating from the social network” and “work more closely with mobile phone carriers to monitor the lists of recycled numbers and reduce the frequency of unwanted text messages.” The fact that people had to resort to a lawsuit to get action on these basic business practices paints a rather unflattering picture of the company’s arrogant attitude towards its users — and to the non-users who got the recycled numbers and then were billed for the messages.

Elise Ackerman’s Facebook alarms privacy advocates again talks about a Facebook signup icon showing up on smartphones without the owners permission. This is privacy in the classic sense of “the right to be left alone”, not being tracked; and of course this is something that phone companies do routinely, viewing phones’ “screen real estate” as a spot for advertising and product placement … so “alarm” seems somewhat overstated. Still, given the pattern above, Jeffrey Chester (of the Center for Digital Democracy) sounds on-target to me when he says “It illustrates a basic problem over at Facebook, which is their need to fatten their bank account is confounding their need to protect the privacy of their members.”

And not to sound like a broken record or anything: this kind of attention augurs well for proposals like the national “do-not-track” mechanism — and increases the probabilities that populist-oriented politicians in any party will seize on privacy as a chance to differentiate themselves this upcoming election year.