OPINION: Privacy is the best policy

In May 2008, a 26-year-old British woman was murdered over a change to her Facebook status.

Sarah Richardson was estranged from her husband, Edward, at the time. She changed her relationship status in her Facebook profile to “Single.” An enraged Edward broke into her parents’ home and stabbed her to death. He was convicted in January and sentenced to 17 years to life in prison.

“Was the woman aware that by changing her status, the man would receive a post on his Facebook newsfeed?” wondered Marshall Kirkpatrick on Read Write Web after the conviction. “Did she know how to exclude him from such updates if she had wished to? Did the man worry that he would be publicly humiliated when other people received the same kind of notice on their newsfeed? Did he picture a particular group of people who would see it and was that picture accurate? Do we need to teach children new social skills about dealing with semi-public information online, like the end of a relationship?”

This comes to mind now, after Canada’s privacy commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, rapped Facebook for failure to protect Canadian users’ personal information adequately.

“It’s clear that privacy issues are top of mind for Facebook, and yet we found serious privacy gaps in the way the site operates,” said Stoddart. Privacy information on the site is confusing and incomplete, according to her report, and while users can deactivate their accounts, they can’t delete them from Facebook’s servers.

Should Facebook provide clearer, more effective, more usable tools to give users control over how their personal information is disseminated? Absolutely. No argument from this corner.

But the most effective online privacy tool is the user.

Consider this: Facebook is not providing a social media forum for you to keep in touch with your family and friends. Facebook is offering advertisers a minutely targeted audience based on demographic information and online behaviour. The Facebook business model is based on using, not protecting, information; that’s the cost of the “free” service.

Where business model and privacy imperative collide, it’s up to the user to protect that information.

Facebook doesn’t force you to divulge information. You volunteer it. And in volunteering it to Facebook, you’re also volunteering it for use by a network of advertisers and application developers (bearing in mind, of course, that “applications” in a Facebook context are for the most part simple data mining exercises).

Could Facebook’s privacy policy state more clearly exactly how personal information is being used and what the consequences of that use could be? Yes. But here’s the critical issue: Do users actually read it? (You haven’t read it, have you?) Facebook could offer click-by-click tutorials on how to use privacy protection features of the site. Would users watch them?

We’re well past the tipping point of a fundamental change in the way our personal information is collected and used. But for the most part, we’re lagging in understanding of the potential consequences. Nanny-state interference – forcing Facebook to protect people from their own naivete, to prevent them from sharing information improperly – is not going to work.

That said, let’s not absolve Facebook of all responsibility. There is a major educational effort needed to get people to understand how to protect their information, how to share it – and why. There is no entity in a better position to take a leading role in that effort than Facebook. It’s time to step up to the plate.



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