Fast Company

Facebook Clarifies Questionably Private New "Pre-Approved Partners"

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Late last month, Facebook updated the Privacy Policy to include some new and frankly suspicious additions: "In the proposed privacy policy, we’ve also explained the possibility of working with some partner websites that we pre-approve to offer a more personalized experience at the moment you visit the site." Sounds innocuous, right? Pre-approval just means faster! But it also means you don't get to give your approval to these partners--only Facebook does. And that spells trouble.

Facebook users angrily questioned the new changes--what does that mean? Who are these partners? What kind of information is being passed to them without approval? Is there an opt-out system, at least? Facebook was forced to clarify their position in a lengthy post last night; some things are explained, but the problem here is that the program involved is still very much unfinished, and Facebook is seemingly both unable and unwilling to spill too much about an ongoing process. For one thing, it might change (partly based on these reactions, even), and specifics are hard to nail down when the project isn't nearly finished.

Barry Schnitt, a Facebook spokesman, noted that many of the comments are actually just misreading the Privacy Policy: for example, some users asked to be able to hide their Friends List, a feature that's been available for quite a while. That in itself points to some problems within Facebook--if the users don't know what they can and cannot do, that's not necessarily the fault of the users. Facebook's privacy controls are extremely complicated and users can (to some degree) be forgiven for not understanding them.

But Schnitt gave more room to those "pre-approved partnerships." Here's what he had to say:

First, it's important to underscore that this will be a test with a handful of carefully selected partners to provide express personalization on their sites. These partners will be pre-selected, reviewed, and bound by contracts with Facebook – much like other partners we have worked with in other contexts to deliver unique and innovative experiences. For example, we're working with Yahoo! to integrate Facebook across their properties, AOL to integrate our chat with AIM, and we first partnered with CNN.com to make their broadcast of the Presidential Inauguration more social with the launch of the Facebook live stream application.

In addition, partners who participate in this test will be required to provide an easy and prominent method for you to opt out directly from their website and delete your data if you do opt out. There will also be new features on Facebook.com to help you control your experience when you visit these sites.

That's still maddeningly vague. What kind of information do these pre-approved companies have access to, and is that uniform among all users? But more disturbing is the idea that these companies (as "carefully selected" as they are) have reversed the standard formula. No longer is the default position "private." Before, you were naturally private, and had the option of choosing which companies or services had access to you. But these companies switch the default to "public"--you've got to go over there and turn that option off. No matter how "easy and prominent" the opt-out system is, it's a dangerous shift to make user information public by default.

This is very much a work in progress, and I imagine users and the press alike will have much to debate, so Facebook may end up altering their position on these partnerships before they launch. I hope they do.

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