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Facebook Users Object to Privacy Erosion

A new survey says users overwhelmingly are unhappy with Facebook's plans to allow third party websites (maybe your company's) access to personal information.

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Facebook users around the globe are unhappy with the site's planned changes to its privacy policy, says a new report.

Nearly all Facebook users surveyed (95 percent) think that the privacy changes are "a bad thing," according to a survey done by internet security firm Sophos. The changes will allow "pre-approved" third-party websites (possibly your company's) to access users' personal information – when users visit an external web site, it will already know their name, birthday, who their friends are and any other data users share on Facebook. The survey was conducted among 680 users of Sophos's web site and Facebook page.

Just three percent of users say they are not very clear about the changes Facebook is proposing, and two percent say they're OK with the changes.

"The results of this poll send out a very clear message to Facebook--its users aren't happy. Most Facebook users still don't know how to set their Facebook privacy options safely, finding the whole system confusing and long-winded," said Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos. "The onus should not be on Facebook users to 'opt out' of this new feature but to 'opt in'--making a conscious choice to engage, rather than having to make a conscious decision to decline."

Facebook spokesman Barry Schnitt said that partners in the third-party ventures will be required to 'provide an easy and prominent method for you to opt out directly from their website and delete your data if you do opt out.'

And in a blog response to user comments on the proposed changes, Schnitt wrote: Some "asked to be opted-out of having their information shared with advertisers. This reflects a common misconception about advertising on Facebook. We don't share your information with advertisers unless you tell us to. ... Any assertion to the contrary is false. Period. Instead, we enable advertisers to target anonymized demographics and attributes."

The proposed privacy changes could allow you some seriously targeted and potentially invasive advertising – will the gains be worth the almost-certain backlash? Sam Altman, founder and CEO of location-based social mapping service Loopt Inc (which will also allow for invasive advertising), thinks so. "As long as we can deliver real value to users, they'll stay," he told Internet Evolution.

Of course Facebook is no stranger to privacy controversies. Previous revisions of its privacy policies pushed users to share personal data and photos with everyone by default. Its Beacon ad network plans -- which tracked Web activities even outside the social networking site -- also prompted widespread criticism, including a spot on Inc's Dumbest Products of 2007 list.

The Sophos survey comes as a South Park episode -- called "You've got 0 Friends" – criticized social networking and its infiltration of everyday lives. (To see excerpts of the episode, click here.)  Meanwhile, a German consumer group is urging users to boycott Facebook over the proposed privacy changes.
 
The Federation of German Consumer Organizations (VZBZ) wants the changes to be opt-in only, and thinks users should abandon Facebook to pressure the company into reconsidering its plans. (The group thinks the policy should be opt-in only.)
 
Germany's consumer affairs minister Ilse Aigner also threatened to delete her Facebook account in protest. (Read Aigner's letter here.)

Last updated: Apr 9, 2010

COURTNEY RUBIN

Inc. contributing editor Courtney Rubin was for five years a London-based staff writer for People magazine. Rubin, a former senior writer for Washingtonian magazine, has written for the New York Times magazine, Time, Marie Claire, and other publications. She is the author of The Weight-Loss Diaries.




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