Archive for the ‘Privacy’ Category

On Deactivating My Facebook Account

Saturday, September 24th, 2011

Facebook recently held their annual “F8″ conference, aimed at unveiling some new features they’ve been working on. Most of
the initial coverage has focused on their new “Timeline” feature. Truth be told, I think it’s beautifully designed; they outdid
themselves on creating a great user experience for their intended goals. However, even with this addition, I’ve still decided
to deactivate my Facebook account. A number of people asked me why, so I figured I’d put my thoughts down in writing.

Disclaimer
I work heavily in the tech/startup industry, and I work with a number of companies that use or have used Facebook for things such as login, user retention, and other associated tactics. This article in no way reflects their opinions, business practices, or
approach to user rights. The opinions presented herein are my own and should be treated as such.

It’s no secret that when Facebook changes things (whether it be UI, Privacy Settings, etc), people tend to get into an uproar. Facebook is just massive at this point, but they still work with a very hacker-centric culture and are not afraid to endure a few blows in the ring to reach success. I’m a fan of this approach, I have to admit, and up until now I even allowed it to sway my thoughts on basic privacy matters within it.

With that said, the latest updates (in addition to the Timeline) have pretty much turned me off the entire experience. For those not familiar, developers building applications around Facebook can integrate what’s known as the “Open Graph” (and their API in general). This has been around for awhile now; what this basically amounted to (up until recently) was that things that you explicitly “Liked” were sent to Facebook. Note the word “explicitly” in that sentence, because it factors in below.

What Changed

Their Open Graph was extended with the most recent batch of updates. If you’re a technical type and interested, the
relevant documentation is here. These updates are, to quote from the page itself…

“…to include arbitrary actions and objects created by 3rd party apps and enabling these apps to integrate deeply into the Facebook experience”

Some people who’ll read this can parse that themselves, but let’s break it down for the sake of awareness: when you go to a website (like, say, Yelp), you have the option to “Connect with Facebook”, and this lets you see what all your friends have enjoyed. This is Facebook integration, and it’s almost always amounted to “hey, grant me this permission to post to your wall”. Pretty much every implementation that I’ve run across has had the decency to ask before posting, and if you’re like me you probably expect this to be the norm. “Liking” something has also been explicit, with you having to actually click a button to send it to your Facebook profile. These changes allow applications to mark you as having done things without explicitly sharing it on Facebook; read an article, automatically on your page as “Ryan read this” – play some music on Spotify, it shows up in the ticker in the top right of the design.

This is a company with a large amount of trust pulling the rug out from underneath everyone.

But You’ve Still Gotta Allow It!

Yes, this is true. Before this can happen you are still presented with a dialog asking for permission to do anything with your Facebook account. The thing about this dialog is that Facebook’s brand and trust work against them (or for them, depending on your viewpoint) in this case; I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve witnessed family members and friends blaze right through that prompt without any regard for what access levels they’re giving out, because it’s Facebook. They see a “Like” button somewhere, and it’s understood that “Hey, if I click this, Facebook knows. If I don’t, they don’t.”

Now you’ve got applications being able to transparently provide information about your activities online. Changing this model is, in my opinion, a direct insult to any level of trust I ever put into Facebook. I’m going to spell this out quite frankly so people understand this:

Facebook’s entire business depends on you sharing your personal information. If you expect them to respect your rights while knowing this, you’re in what’s known as an abusive relationship.

This is not the first time privacy rights issues have come up with regards to Facebook; interested readers should look at the Facebook Beacon incident, which ultimately produced a class action lawsuit in 2008. This was a huge issue, as it was your personal data being shared without your consent. This new addition is ultimately no different; if anything, I’ll give them props for how slyly it’s pulled off. People implicitly trust the service, and there’s a dialog (that people don’t look at) saying what’ll happen.

This is nothing more than standard “fine print” legality practices, albeit more digital. If you authorize it and there was technically something notifying you, you don’t get to necessarily claim your rights after the fact.

The Main Takeaway

I was prompted to write this post after I spoke with a family member, and they noted that they knew changes to Facebook were coming, but were so tired of the experience changing without great notification that they didn’t even bother to read further. This is your data; as an engineer, I felt a responsibility to help educate those who don’t have the perspective afforded to me. I would hope other engineers consider this as well, but it’s their choice to make. I say all of this with no intention of putting myself on a pedestal; I simply want to make sure that people understand their rights.

In addition, I’ve found Facebook to just be a distraction as of late. Most of the people I know have dropped their usage rates quite a bit; I believe (or maybe I’d like to, feel free to be the judge) that we might be entering a “Social Fatigue” period; in Japan, there’s a social network called Mixi. It’s possible you’ve never heard about it, but there’s actually a symptom for people getting tired of it (“ミクシィ疲れ”, or “Mixi Fatigue”). I’ve decided to just kill the distraction, as I’d rather do something more interesting with my life than monitor others. This is an entirely personal point, and I do not expect everyone to agree.

The age of information has (and will continue to be) incredible. I do believe that making sharing information easier has important benefits; these benefits, however, should not come at the cost of privacy rights. I’ll gladly stay on Twitter, because my account is public and it’s pretty apparent what data is available on me. Having a complete idea of what’s going on there is much more respective to me as a user, and for me it’s a selling point that Facebook broke.

Keep your account, deactivate it, do whatever you want – it is your choice. Just be informed about what’s going on here, for your own sake.