Time looks at social-networking site Facebook and its myriad privacy changes, which have raised criticism worldwide. (You might find a previous commentary by security expert Bruce Schneier enlightening. He notes: “Here’s the problem: The very companies whose CEOs eulogize privacy make their money by controlling vast amounts of their users’ information.”)
Sometime in the next few weeks, Facebook will officially log its 500 millionth active citizen. If the website were granted terra firma, it would be the world’s third largest country by population, two-thirds bigger than the U.S. More than 1 in 4 people who browse the Internet not only have a Facebook account but have returned to the site within the past 30 days. […]
Facebook has changed our social DNA, making us more accustomed to openness. But the site is premised on a contradiction: Facebook is rich in intimate opportunities — you can celebrate your niece’s first steps there and mourn the death of a close friend — but the company is making money because you are, on some level, broadcasting those moments online. […]
Thus far, the company’s m.o. has been to press users to share more, then let up if too many of them complain. Because of this, Facebook keeps finding itself in the crosshairs of intense debates about privacy. It happened in 2007, when the default settings in an initiative called Facebook Beacon sent all your Facebook friends updates about purchases you made on certain third-party sites. Beacon caused an uproar among users — who were automatically enrolled — and occasioned a public apology from [Facebook founder and CEO Mark] Zuckerberg.
And it is happening again. To quell the latest concerns of users — and of elected officials in the U.S. and abroad — Facebook is getting ready to unveil enhanced privacy controls. The changes are coming on the heels of a complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on May 5 by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which takes issue with Facebook’s frequent policy changes and tendency to design privacy controls that are, if not deceptive, less than intuitive. (Even a company spokesman got tripped up trying to explain to me why my co-worker has a shorter privacy-controls menu than I do.) The 38-page complaint asks the FTC to compel Facebook to clarify the privacy settings attached to each piece of information we post as well as what happens to that data after we share it. […]
Many of us scrambled for cover, restricting who gets to see what on our profile pages. But it’s still nearly impossible to tease out how our data might be used in other places, such as Facebook applications or elsewhere on the Web.