The Relationship Between Facebook and Privacy: It’s Really Complicated

The tension between Facebook and its users — and governments, and advocacy groups — over privacy is one of the biggest thorns in the company’s side right now, as it tries to balance the demands of the network (and of advertisers) with the desires of users, and with the law. And all of this is taking place in an environment where the very meaning of what is “private” and what is “public” is being redefined, by Facebook and other online giants such as Google (s goog), and even users themselves sometimes can’t decide what information they want to share with the world and what they don’t.

Over the past few weeks, the social network has been caught at the center of a privacy maelstrom, with consumer groups attacking it — 15 of them filed a formal letter of complaint with the Federal Trade Commission late yesterday — senators sending threatening letters, and growing numbers of users canceling or deactivating their accounts over privacy concerns. The company has been struggling to respond to security holes that expose private data such as chats, and a survey released yesterday by Consumer Reports says that more than 50 percent of people engage in what it calls “risky behavior” on the social network. Another survey of Facebook users finds that their use of the network is inherently shallow and largely unfulfilling.

Even as he is being hailed as a billionaire genius akin to Microsoft (s msft) founder Bill Gates, the empire Mark Zuckerberg has built seems to be taking fire from critics on all sides. But is all of this criticism fair? Probably not. It’s true that Facebook’s launch of recent changes involving “instant personalization” and the creation of community pages related to users’ profile interests has been badly handled. And it doesn’t help that many people are confused by how to adjust their privacy settings, how to control what information is displayed, and how to disable applications (we put together a comprehensive guide to the new changes and how to disable them if you want to).

But it’s also true that Facebook exists, and has accumulated almost half a billion users worldwide, because it makes it easy for people to connect with their friends and family and to share things with them: photos, thoughts, social games, goofy gifts and yes, even birth dates. Plenty of people clearly want to do this, even after they have been repeatedly warned about the risks, because they believe the trade-off is worth it. And perhaps Facebook doesn’t make it as clear as it could what is involved, or how to fine-tune its privacy controls — but at the same time, some of the onus for doing these things has to fall to users.

The complaint filed by the 15 consumer advocacy groups states that:

Facebook now discloses personal information to the public that Facebook users previously restricted. Facebook now discloses personal information to third parties that Facebook users previously did not make available. These changes violate user expectations, diminish user privacy, and contradict Facebook’s own representations. These business practices are Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices.

The complaint specifically mentions the “instant personalization” feature that allows Microsoft’s, Yelp, and Pandora to personalize their services when a user is logged in to Facebook, and also refers to the fact that Facebook connects profile details such as hometown, movie and music preferences, etc. to public “community pages.”

Those criticisms are all well and good, and the “instant personalization” feature probably wouldn’t have drawn as much fire if it wasn’t turned on by default, but Facebook does allow people to turn it off, and it tells them that their interests will be connected to community pages and become public, and allows them to opt out. It’s not clear from the complaint what the 15 privacy groups would rather the social network do, except not share any of that information at all. But here’s the rub: personalization is a useful feature, and community pages might be as well (it’s still too early to tell).

The Consumer Reports survey, meanwhile, says 52 percent of people post risky information on Facebook. It looked at 2,000 online households in January and found that 9 percent of social network users had been the victim of some form of online abuse in the past year such as malware infections, scams, identity theft or harassment. The report warned about a number of different “risky” activities such as posting your address, when you are home, and so on. But it also mentioned posting photos of family members as a risky behavior (stalking), along with your birth date (potential for identity theft), and other fairly commonplace activities. Isn’t posting photos and names and birthdays part of what Facebook is about? It wouldn’t be much of a social network without them.

Another survey, done by a Dutch company, interviewed readers of Fast Company about Facebook, including asking questions designed to determine whether they were really getting what they wanted out of the social network. The study determined that many users were not really engaging in deep social relationships and therefore weren’t getting a lot out of being on the network. “Online social networks make it easy for people to accumulate friends rapidly and to make commitments easily,” the study said, concluding that “what define social networks most [is] a lack of depth in relationships.”

But even this supposes a false dichotomy, between the connections we make through a social network and “real” relationships, where we phone each other and talk about our personal problems or the death of a loved one. The idea behind social networks, as described by sociologists, is that they help to create an “ambient awareness” of significant people in our lives — friends, family, acquaintances, co-workers — and allow us to stay in touch with them in some small way, not that they replace or mimic real-world relationships. If anything, they should help strengthen them.

And privacy? That’s complicated in the real world, too — Facebook didn’t invent that, or even pioneer it online. People have been breaching each other’s privacy for decades. Just because Facebook is making some mistakes doesn’t mean it should become the lightning rod for all of our pent-up dissatisfaction with normal human behavior.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): How Facebook Should Fix Its Privacy Problem

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Afroboof