Facebook Privacy A Growing Concern For Users
NEAL CONAN, host:
Now Facebook and privacy. A growing number of users are getting frustrated over who gets to see their personal information. The site, the largest social network in the world, made a series of recent updates to its privacy settings, changes that in many cases let more people see what you're doing and what you like. Facebook argues that if you don't want to share, then don't. But some users complain the site makes that too difficult to do. Some are closing their accounts, and they say that's too difficult to do. Others put their account on lockdown. One group of users declared a Facebook protest day, and a collection of consumer privacy groups have even asked the Federal Trade Commission to open an investigation.
If you're on Facebook, do these new changes go too far? Have you changed your privacy settings? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can join the conversation also at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Farhad Manjoo joins us now from the studios at KQED, our member station in San Francisco. He's technology columnist at Slate.com. Nice to have you back.
Mr. FARHAD MANJOO (Slate.com): Hi. And good to be here.
CONAN: And our listeners might remember you were on last year to tell us there is no longer any good reason not to join Facebook. So that was then, this is now. Should people reconsider?
Mr. MANJOO: I don't know if people should reconsider, but I think that they should know that - they should try to find out, and it's difficult these days, what's being shared about them and kind of try to understand the recent changes that Facebook made.
I still think Facebook is a great place, and it offers, you know, a lot of value to a lot people. But I think that what's going on right now is that people are sort of very confused about the recent changes they made.
CONAN: Well, indeed. One of the biggest complaints is that these are pretty hard to understand. What exactly are we talking about here?
Mr. MANJOO: Okay. So they made a series of changes, and it's hard to explain, it's hard to understand and there's sort of - that's because what did is they've made some parts more open and they've made some parts kind of more difficult to control. So now at the moment the stuff that's visible to everyone is your name, your photo if you have one, your gender and your network of friends.
So you used to be able to sort of keep some of this hidden but now by default you can't change it. All of this stuff is available to everybody. And Facebook sort of says that this is just because the most basic kind of identity information about you, your name and your gender and your picture, should be up to - so that if someone searches for you, they should be able to at least see that you're a member of Facebook and see that you're on there.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. And - but there are other things that - a lot default settings that if you don't opt out of some stuff, they're going to share information with other agencies, other websites.
Mr. MANJOO: Right. So they - a month ago they unveiled this service called, I think it's instant personalization. And what happens is with a number of sites - they've picked three so far - Pandora, which is a music service, Yelp, which is the online restaurant and other local business...
CONAN: Ratings service.
Mr. MANJOO: ...review site...
Mr. MANJOO: ...and Microsoft, which runs a document system online. With those sites, it's going to share - Facebook will share your information with them in - in what they say is a very controlled manner. And - in -because of that, as a result, if you go to one of those sites, if you go to Pandora, say, which is a music site, even if you've never been there before, Pandora will sort of be able to tell what kind of music you like and play music for you based on your Facebook profile.
CONAN: Which is both amazingly convenient and really creepy.
Mr. MANJOO: Right. I agree with both of those. It is a convenience. I think that if, you know, if a lot of websites start doing this, we'll see, I think, a chance for having a better, a better Web. Sites you go to will kind of understand things about you and probably be able to kind of better serve you. And you will get a better experience.
On the other hand, it is creepy. It's creepy when sites know things about you. So now, this setting, you can opt of it. Facebook will sort of notify you the first time you log in, or it probably already has notified a lot of people about it. You can turn it off, but by default, if you dont turn it off, it's on.
CONAN: So that's what a lot of people are complaining about. Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Again, Farhad Manjoo is our guest: 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll start with James, James calling from San Antonio.
JAMES (Caller): Yes. I just want to say I was undergrad from '02 to '06, so I've been on Facebook basically since near the beginning. And I think it's the user's responsibility to A) control what you put on your profile, because if you don't - if you use it just as a networking tool and only friend people who know you, you don't need to put things like your favorite TV shows and stuff like that because they already know you. You don't put the information on Facebook (unintelligible) anybody else can(ph) have access to it.
CONAN: So in other words, caveat emptor, the user should know all their stuff and be careful.
CONAN: And you have taken all toga party pictures off.
JAMES: Yes. There is no party pictures on there.
CONAN: Okay, James. Thanks very much. And he's got a point, Farhad. And indeed, thats what pretty much Facebook says.
Mr. MANJOO: Yeah. I think its good advice and it's sort of the ultimate way to ensure that you stay private online is to just not put anything online. But I think that a lot of people want kind of more fine-grained control over their profile than that. They want you to be able to say, you know, I'm putting this picture up and I want to know where it goes and I want to be sure that down the line Facebook doesn't change the policy so that my expectation doesn't change.
You know, right now you can put stuff up on Facebook and there are various controls over how - over who gets to see it. I think they're pretty good controls. The problem is that because they're so good, because they allow you to do so much, they're complicated, they're hard to understand, and the other thing is that Facebook sometimes changes the rules kind of in the middle of the game. So you put something up there and then at some point in the future it's not clear right now that they won't decide, well, now the picture you put up is actually available to everybody.
CONAN: Let's go to Arman(ph), Arman with us from San Jose, California.
ARMAN (Caller): Hi, Neal, how are you doing?
CONAN: I'm well, thank you.
ARMAN: Thank you so much for taking my call.
ARMAN: I was an undergraduate starting in 2004, grew up in the Bay Area. So I started with Facebook and ironically it only took me two months in my freshman year to realize how weird it was for other people to be looking at everything I was doing.
And I am the only person of all my friends that has not had a Facebook this entire time. And I consider myself lucky for two reasons. First, because so many of my friends spend so much time browsing other people's pictures and can't do other productive things. and second, maybe I'm a little old-fashioned, but I always found it kind of weird as if you're inviting people into your house that you don't know and showing them your family photo albums right off the bat.
CONAN: Yeah. The first one is sort of the Betty White position. Now that I know what's about, it's a colossal waste of time.
ARMAN: Huge waste of time, and after six years now, I feel like more lucky than all my friends, and I - my wife, she has it, she's on it every day, and I consider myself very lucky that I don't.
CONAN: All right, Arman, thanks very much for the call.
ARMAN: Thank you so much. Bye-bye.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we go next to Mary. Mary is with us from Watertown, Massachusetts.
MARY (CALLER): Hi. I'm calling because I just - last week after, you know, much deliberation I finally cancelled two accounts, one I had with a lot of old friends and one with work friends, work - sort of work site. And it just became too much time but also a lack of privacy and the feeling that I was making comments that were ridiculous and other people could see them and I'm feeling like a kid in junior high who didn't know how to handle all these people and all these situations where I reply to one but didn't have time to reply to the other.
CONAN: And did I have to ask, Mary, did you actually deactivate your account or did you go through all the steps and delete your account?
MARY: No, I just deactivated, and I know that I can go back to them at any time.
CONAN: Oh, they're still there.
MARY: Yeah, but people can't see them because I checked them, so when you go to the page, it says this page is not active.
CONAN: That's been - and thank you, Mary, and have you regretted your decision at all?
MARY: Not yet.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARY: But I might. You know, at some point I might miss a work opportunity because on the work site some people post that.
MARY: But at this point I just can't - it's like sensory overload right now.
CONAN: All right, Mary, thanks every much, and we welcome you to the world of extra time.
MARY: Okay, thank you.
MARY: Yeah, bye.
CONAN: And Farhad, the - one of complaints is indeed even if you want to delete your account, it's not so easy.
Mr. MANJOO: Yes, so they have two options, as you mentioned, that you can deactivate your account, which kind of put you in this suspended animation where nobody can see what's going on but your stuff is still there, so if decide a year later or sometime that you actually want to go back to Facebook, you can reactivate it and kind of make it active.
CONAN: Everything is still there, yeah.
Mr. MANJOO: Everything is still there. And then you can actually go through the process of deleting it. And Facebook does this funny this thing where it try to guilt - it tries to guilt you into staying, where it'll show you your friends and say, like, Bob misses you or other people will miss you if you leave. But if you actually, you know, go press delete, it will delete all of your stuff over a process of some time. It will delete all your personal information and your comments that you've made on other people's pages will be rendered as anonymous, made by anonymous instead of made by you.
CONAN: And will they continue to email you relentlessly?
Mr. MANJOO: I don't know. I would hope not.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MANJOO: If you've gone through the process of leaving Facebook, I would imagine that that's a pretty good sign you don't want to be part of it. But I have to say, I don't think that's a big problem for Facebook. I mean, as the caller mentioned...
CONAN: Oh yeah, more people are joining than leaving.
Mr. MANJOO: Right. You know, hundreds of about 100 million people or more are joining kind of every year. They have 400 million people right now. So every time we see one of these dust-ups, and we have seen them for - throughout Facebook's history, you know, if I were looking at Facebook's numbers, I wouldn't see much evidence of their being kind of a public outcry.
CONAN: We're talking with Farhad Manjoo, the technology columnist at Slate.com. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's go next to Nicki(ph), Nicki with us from Kodiak in Alaska.
NICKI (Caller): Yes.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
NICKI: Yeah. I just - I tend to agree with most listeners that have been calling that it's just so difficult to figure out what's going on. There's some pages, like, if you go to privacy settings, the one that's about the applications and websites, if you're trying to see what they can share and they can't share, and it's like, well, yeah, you can choose your settings, but it doesn't even tell you in the directions check the box if you don't want to allow it or leave it unchecked if you do. It doesn't even, like, specifically tell you what to do you if you want to opt out of something.
CONAN: Yeah. It is - it can be very confusing, Farhad. Are these instructions deliberately obtuse or is this just bad design?
Mr. MANJOO: I think it's bad design. I don't think it's - they're trying to be deliberately obtuse. But I think - so there's this kind of tension. People want it simple, but they also want a lot of kind of power over their profile. Like I want to be able to say that my mom can see A, B and C of my profile but not D, not at all. And I want to sort of have various different kinds of people see different parts, and I want to be able to say this website can see this is my profile but not that.
So this kind of complexity makes it hard to explain what the various settings are. But on the other hand, you know, if you didn't have this complexity and you just offered people, like, make my profile private or not private, which is one of the things that Facebook - what it was like, sort of, in the earlier days, that, you know, people will get upset not being able to have as much control...
CONAN: To shape it the way they want to.
Mr. MANJOO: Right. Right.
CONAN: This group of friends can see this, and this group of friends can see that, but, yeah, anyway, anyway. Nicky, thanks very much for the call. Good luck to you.
NICKY: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to - this is Christina(ph), Christina with us from Newberry Port in Massachusetts.
CHRISTINA (Caller): Hi.
CHRISTINA: I just had a question about - there was a feature that I was familiar with where you could actually make it so that if people searched for you, they wouldnt be able to find you unless they were someone on your friend's list.
CHRISTINA: Do you know anything about that feature?
Mr. MANJOO: Yeah. As far as I know, I don't think thats possible right now. So if they search for you - if you have a Facebook profile and they search for you through Facebook, I think that your name will come up because it's sort of...
CHRISTINA: Even if - because I know that I definitely - because I work at a middle school and obviously, you know, kids are going to be searching for us teachers all the time. If they find out our first name or whatever. So I...
CONAN: Isn't your first name Miss?
CHRISTINA: What? No, it's Christina.
CONAN: No, no. I was going to say your first name is Miss. Miss Jones or Miss Smith. Yes, right.
CHRISTINA: Yes, of course. Yeah, but I was under the impression that that was a feature that was still functioning. But as far as...
Mr. MANJOO: They do have - I know they do have a feature to prevent search engines from kind of indexing your name, so if somebody searches through - for you through Google, they won't - you can set it up so they won't...
CHRISTINA: Won't find your Facebook page.
Mr. MANJOO: Right. But if there is that feature, I mean, it sort of highlights how complex it is, because I don't know about it.
CHRISTINA: Exactly, because I remember, you know, when I discovered it, I was like, it's so cool, you can make it so people can't search for you.
CHRISTINA: All right. Well, thank you.
CONAN: Christina, good luck.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go to Dave, Dave with us from Ogden, Utah.
DAVE (Caller): Hey, how are you doing?
CONAN: All right.
DAVE: Hey, I'm 30 years old. I've never, ever had a MySpace account, but it still gets, you know, it still affects my life a little bit because my wife is very involved in - I mean, I'll be walking through the grocery store and see, like, somebody I haven't seen for 10 years and go - come up to you: Hey, I heard your dog passed away. I'm so sorry.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVE: It just seems like everybody knows everybody's business. And I've had a friend, you know, they have a, you know, turmoil in their relationship. It seems like they're airing their dirty laundry and everybody hears about it.
CONAN: So you're social network collateral damage, Dave.
DAVE: Absolutely. Even though I'm not involved, it seems like people are always hearing about stuff going on in my life, you know? So I'm glad I'm not involved. I don't know, it's...
CONAN: And Dave, we were sorry to hear about your dog.
CONAN: All right, bye-bye. That can be a problem.
Mr. MANJOO: Yeah. I mean, some people consider it a problem. Other people consider it kind of a good thing. If your dog died and, you know, if in the old days I wouldn't have been able to hear about it until six months later and I wouldn't have been able to say anything about it, but now if I'm your friend, I can find out and send you some condolences. And the next time we talk, I may be able to sort of build on that conversation.
CONAN: One thing we haven't mentioned, if you buy something on Facebook, do they keep that information and do they share that information, your credit card number?
Mr. MANJOO: So no, they don't - they don't share that information. They are building a sort of a payment system where - and they will at that point sort of take a cut of what you buy. And in general, they don't share information with advertisers, so they won't - if you buy something, if - or they won't even sort of tell advertisers your gender, your name, things you like. They serve ads to you kind of based on, you know, targeted anonymous demographics.
Mr. MANJOO: So this - they're very kind of clear about this. This - if have a line in the sand, it's that they don't give third-party advertisers your private information.
CONAN: Farhad, thanks very much for your time, as always.
Mr. MANJOO: Thank you.
CONAN: Farhad Manjoo is technology columnist at Slate.com. You can find a link to his column at our website, npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. His article, "Dealing with Facebook's Privacy Changes," will appear tomorrow afternoon at Slate - with us, as usual from KQED, our member station in San Francisco.