Last October, Facebook drew fire for allowing teens to post publicly for the first time. Critics blasted the social network for monetizing kids and teens. Newsflash: Facebook has been and will continue to monetize every living being on its platform. And that makes Facebook no different than all of its capitalist predecessors; making money is not the real issue here.
No, what we should hold Facebook accountable for is its too-slowly-evolving stand on privacy.
Opening up Facebook is the right thing to do, but it's also complicated because doing so means the social network (and others like it) must do a better job of educating users. They must have a clear-cut privacy product. I don't mean a shortened privacy statement but a product that clearly and succinctly states what piece of data is being used for what.
On a very simple level, any social network should have a "take me private" button--one that shuts out the world--and another that lets only specific connections see specific things. The default setting should border on obsessive--what's shared should be in the hands of the user, not the network. Terms of data use should address actionable choices the user has made to share information, not a way of legally covering the company in the event that something bad happens.
This isn't to say that social networks haven't become more privacy-friendly with their settings, but we're far from a point where it's easy to shut out the world.
The obtuse crystallization of this lack of product privacy is Internet security company AVG's PrivacyFix. PrivacyFix is essentially a sophisticated Chrome plugin that tells you exactly what your Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google Plus pages are sharing, and what potential mistakes you're making with your privacy. While this is an excellent and easy-to-use product, it's also ludicrous that it has to exist.
Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, and other companies are leaving traffic (and money) on the table because they don't want to commit to a privacy-focused product. Their anxiety could be that the virality of content on Facebook will be stifled by easily letting people control the privacy of their platforms. Twitter, which has a borderline binary way of controlling privacy (your tweets are private, not private, or directed at one user), still has over 240 million monthly active users, which pales in comparison to Facebook's 1.3 billion.
However, judging by Facebook's creation of embedded posts to compete with Twitter's embedded tweets, there's a clear interest in tweets' immediate public impact.
The truth is that Facebook (and other networks) could solve the problem by dropping the "everything is public" mantra entirely and making it very clear what's being posted publicly or privately. Having a vague tab that says a few different things (public, friends, etc.) isn't obvious enough--make the button say where the post is going. Instead of having the privacy button hidden at the top right in a small, non-specific icon, why not a "privacy" tab underneath "messages"--or even under "edit profile"?
So why aren't they already doing this? The answer may not be simple greed but the anxiety of a public company over its revenue stream. With a potential exodus of teenage users to messaging apps, and an initial worry over revenue generation via mobile (which they have now righted), Facebook could be desperate to keep making money and so they continue to make privacy missteps.
We the people need to hold them accountable, and not accept vague privacy policies as an excuse for making people’s information public when they don't want it to be.
Obfuscating privacy settings is not a trick that will work in the long run--and while Facebook may currently be the king of the social networks, it only takes a few missteps to fall. Just look at MySpace.