|Facebook has been hit by a public backlash over its handling of user content [EPA]|
When Facebook released its latest feature, Facebook Connect, in early May, the fast-growing social media company did not get quite the reaction it was hoping for.
Instead of accolades, Facebook was confronted with a mob of angry users, many of whom took to their blogs, detailing their frustrations with the site and sometimes, threatening to quit it.
Embittered by the new features and what they deemed Facebook’s lack of concern for their personal data, two Canadian Facebook users – Matthew Milan and Joseph Dee – set up QuitFacebookDay.com, inviting users to join them in opting out of the site on May 31.
On his personal blog, Milan stated that while he believes “it’s acceptable for organisations to collect and use comprehensive personal data from individuals, they must do it in a way that [gives individuals] fair choices to decide how that data is used, and [is] done with the intent of serving the best interests of current (and future) society as a whole”.
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Launched in 2004 by Harvard University student Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook was intended as a semi-private social networking site for Harvard students to interact with one another.
The site then expanded to include most universities across the US and Canada. In 2006 it opened its virtual doors to the public, allowing anyone over 13 and with a valid email address to create an account.
By early 2010, the site boasted 400 million users, 70 per cent of whom reside outside of the US.
Facebook’s privacy features have changed considerably over time as well; whereas the site initially allowed users within specific, closed networks to interact with each other, the 2006 opening of the site meant that anyone could befriend another user, resulting in a backlash from some of Facebook’s original users.
And in 2007, Facebook launched a public listing search, which meant that any user whose privacy settings were set to ‘everyone’ would have his name and profile photo listed in public search engines.
The latest changes to Facebook began in December 2009, when Facebook made large portions of user profiles – including the user’s name, city of residence, photo, names of the user’s friends and the causes they have signed on to – public by default.
The social networking site took things a step further this spring with the launch of Facebook Connect, an opt-out social feature intended to tie Facebook neatly to other parts of the web.
For many users, Facebook Connect was the final straw in a long line of privacy battles against the company.
The new feature meant that any items a user lists as things he likes must become public and linked to public profile pages.
Should the user choose not to link the items, then the items are removed entirely from the user’s profile (although Facebook can still use them to target advertising).
Searching for alternatives
Following weeks of backlash over its latest features, Facebook finally responded by revising some of its privacy policies, making it easier for users to change their privacy settings and to turn off links with third-party services.
For some users, however, it may be a case of ‘too little, too late’.
QuitFacebookDay.com has just over 25,000 users signed up.
While that number represents only .006 of the site’s 400 million users, a recent study by IT security firm Sophos found that 60 per cent of Facebook users surveyed are considering leaving, while 16 per cent claim to have already done so.
The proliferation of new social networking sites such as Diaspora and the Muslim-oriented MillatFacebook seem to confirm the notion that users are looking for alternatives.
In the US, a number of groups have been lobbying for government regulations of social networking sites, undoubtedly with Facebook in mind.
Transparency vs. privacy
Despite Facebook’s policy revisions, users may still have cause for concern.
Statements by Zuckerberg regarding privacy make it clear that he believes users should strive for utmost transparency, and recently, a reporter claimed that, when asked about Zuckerberg’s feelings on privacy, a Facebook staffer responded: “He doesn’t believe in it.”
Additionally, groups like the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) are unconvinced that the changes to Facebook’s privacy policies go far enough.
In an interview with CNet, EPIC director Marc Rotenberg said that although users have a fair amount of control over their information, they still cannot control how Facebook shares personal information with third-party services.
Today, 25,000 Facebook users may quit, but still more will continue to join the site.
In fact, Google recently released data demonstrating that Facebook is the number one site on the web.
So while the protesters joining QuitFacebookDay.com, or quitting on their own, may certainly make a media splash – and may be better off for their choices – one thing is for certain: Facebook is not going anywhere.