Facebook's Privacy Faceoff

| Tue Feb. 17, 2009 7:32 PM EST

What are you doing right now?

If you're Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, your answer is probably "backtracking." That's because many of Facebook's 175 million users, who are encouraged to answer that same question whenever they log in, have been in an uproar over how Facebook might use their replies, and any other information they post on the site. Two weeks ago, Facebook altered its privacy policy, deleting a provision that said users could remove their content from the site at any time, at which point its license would expire. Facebook's decision to retain the rights to users' posts even after they're deleted fanned fears that any leak, indiscretion, or misstatement on the popular social networking site could be immutable. The protests were so fierce that Zuckerberg reversed himself this morning, reverting to Facebook's old privacy policy until the site resolves how information posted on the site is controlled. 

"This is one more way one can be 'screwed,'" Facebook user Misty Rain wrote Tuesday on the wall of the new group, Facebook Privacy, one of several groups formed on the site to protest the change. She described the ordeal of trying to get Facebook to remove photos that had been taken from her site and used in "slanderous ways" by stalkers. "I wonder how old markie [Mark Zuckerberg] would like it if someone took his picture, altered it very slightly and posted it on extremely questionable groups," she went on. "Perhaps it is only those who can shit money who will be protected."

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It's no secret that Facebook, which is partly owned by Microsoft, has been scrambling for ways to turn a profit. The ability to store and employ users' data could be key to that goal as Facebook looks for new ways to commercialize the virtual interactions between friends. A lengthy Forbes feature posted Tuesday describes how Facebook tracks those relationships, providing friends with constant updates about each other through a so-called stream:

The information that pops up is partly a result of controls you establish in your privacy settings and feedback you provide to Facebook. But Facebook also can track your behavior, and if the site notices you're spending a lot of time on the fan page of a certain movie star, for example, it will send you more information about that celebrity.

Needless to say, marketers would love to tap into that information. "If there are 150 million people in a room, you should probably go to that room," says Narinder Singh, chief product officer for Appirio, which helps big companies like Dell and Starbucks find ways to connect with users over the site. "It's too attractive a set of people and too large a community for businesses to ignore."

Yet because businesses haven't yet effectively infiltrated Facebook, its users may be under the mistaken impression that they aren't under surveillance. "What I like is that it doesn't bombard you with advertisements, so it feels really personal," says Heather Rowley, a 35-year-old photographer in Berkeley. It seems inevitable that some members will feel betrayed or uneasy when ads based on casual chats with friends start to appear on their feeds.

 

Of course, this is also what Google does in Gmail when it feeds you ads based on keywords it picks up in the bodies of your emails. The difference is that Google doesn't retain the right to use your last email to your mom on the side of a bus for marketing purposes. Neither is that the intention of Facebook, says Zuckerberg, who on Tuesday tried to clarify that the privacy policy changes were only meant to warn that your friends still retain copies of information you've posted on the site after you leave. Still, Facebook's new privacy policy (before it was reversed) seemed broader than that. For the truly curious, the relevant portion reads in full

By posting User Content to any part of the Site, you automatically grant, and you represent and warrant that you have the right to grant, to the Company an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, publicly perform, publicly display, reformat, translate, excerpt (in whole or in part) and distribute such User Content for any purpose, commercial, advertising, or otherwise, on or in connection with the Site or the promotion thereof, to prepare derivative works of, or incorporate into other works, such User Content, and to grant and authorize sublicenses of the foregoing.

The Forbes story, though written before this latest kerfuffle, aptly conveys the stakes in its title: "How Facebook is Taking Over Our Lives."

Note: This story was updated from the original on Wednesday morning