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Illustration by Frank Chimero

Does Privacy on Facebook, Google, and Twitter Even Matter?

Farhad Manjoo discovers the problem with Web privacy — and it's us.

What was Google thinking? When the search company launched Buzz a couple of months ago, engineers came up with what they thought was a clever way to kick-start the new social-networking service: They would build Buzz directly into Gmail. Kick-starter number two: Buzz would mine your contacts so you didn't land in a sterile service all by your lonesome (which is what happened with Google Wave). There was only one problem with that plan. Buzz showed the world a list of the people you emailed most often. Apparently no one at Google considered that gaping flaw. What's more, the service was public by default, so anything you said on Buzz would be visible to everyone. Cue Internet kerfuffle, played out mostly over fuming Facebook and Twitter posts. Which was hilarious, because everything you say on Twitter is public by default and the first thing you do after joining Facebook is hand over your email user names and passwords so it can build your social network. Perhaps Google was thinking that we wouldn't mind.

Every few months the Web angrily flares up over some supposedly new invasion of our privacy — the Buzz imbroglio, say, or Facebook's decision to make its users' profile data public by default. Do these companies screw up sometimes? Sure. And they usually move quickly to console users and correct any shortcomings. The real problem may be far less easy to write off in 140 characters: It's all our fault.

These infrequent privacy blowups are actually a sideshow to a much bigger trend. We don't give a flying tweet about privacy. If we did, why are we willingly geotagging photos, telling friends when we're at our favorite restaurant, and revealing so many other once-private details of our lives? Run into the rare Flickr photo restricted to friends and family, or a private Twitter account, and only one thought comes to mind: This person doesn't get it. If we truly cared deeply about preserving a private sphere, none of these phenomenally popular Web services could exist.

Google's mistake — and it's the tell-tale wrench in every privacy dustup — was forgetting what we'll call the paradox of privacy. We want some semblance of control over our personal data, even if we likely can't be bothered to manage it.

In fact, what has to be most galling to Google in hindsight is that if it had followed its own example, it could have avoided being a privacy piñata. Last year, the company made its first foray into "behavioral advertising" — an effort to target ads to people based on their long-term Web-surfing habits. Google was late to this party; most other ad networks already relied on lucrative behavioral ads, but Google had delayed its effort for fear of a privacy firestorm.

When it finally unveiled behavioral ads, Google added a brilliant option to the program — a control panel. It tells you why each ad was targeted to you, it lets you make changes to the kinds of ads you're shown, and it lets you opt out.

The gambit worked. Google heard hardly a peep from regulators or users when targeted ads went live. That wasn't because lots of people chose to opt out of targeted ads. According to Mike Yang, Google's managing product counsel, only a tiny fraction of people, in the "tens of thousands," visit the Ads Preferences Manager each week. And for every 15 people who land on the page, 10 decide to leave their settings unchanged, and 4 choose to change only the kinds of ads they're shown. That leaves just one curmudgeonly user out of the 15 who get as far as the preferences manager who decides to turn off behavioral ads.

The lesson here is striking: Control matters. Privacy doesn't. And as long as we're secure in the knowledge that whatever cool, new Web toy can be turned off, we're fine letting the world peer deeper and deeper into our lives.

Illustration by Frank Chimero

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9 Comments

  • Mazarine

    Thanks for letting me know about Google's Opt Out of Ads Preference manager. Privacy does matter. I really appreciate you letting us know about this. I've set my preferences and downloaded the opt out cookie for this.

    Privacy online is so important to me, and a lot of other people too. I wrote a post called "Shut Your Facebook" which talks about why you DON'T need to be on Facebook, and the privacy concerns there.
    http://www.wildwomanfundraisin...

    Personally I shut my facebook and I'm so much better off for it. I've finished a book, working on a video game, starting a new business, and have connected with a LOT more people in real life!

    Sincerely,

    Mazarine

  • Fredrik Stai

    I honestly didn't know about the Ads Preference Manager. Or that Google had started doing behavioral advertising. And I thought I was up to date on the development of the web.

    The way I see it, it's as if we're going through one of those classic Sci-Fi time warps where the nose of the spaceship is stretched forwards and pulled into the vortex just before the entire spaceship gets sucked in. When you say "we" I think you mean the digitally literate who, if we use the time warp metaphor, are the nose of the spaceship. The ones further back, who make up the bulk of the spaceship, aren't yet experiencing what they're experiencing, though. Look at it that way and you'll be able to understand why as things speed up some of the passengers complain.

    Furthermore, the more things speed up the more our vision gets blurred and the easier it is to alter the course to a direction which the majority might not agree with. I think it's important that we're cautious about the moves that Google, Facebook and other big players are making as the internet moves forward.

  • Max Power

    This is a silly conclusion to draw. More likely people don't really appreciate what is at risk, that the Internet is a giant re-orderable tape recorder and that, as the years go by, someone will come up with software that can gather every every crumb, picture, comment made by or about them into a single invasive profile. There is great financial incentive for this to advertisers and criminals. This is why I would never register for anything with Google, they are one of the worst offenders, I would never get a program that "mined" other information on my hard disk. Even today massive numbers of credit card and social security numbers and even medical records are stolen or lost. Some company goes out of business and a trustee sells off databases oblivious to whatever confidentiality agreement was originally made with the disclosing party. Mark my words, we are steadlily moving towards a privacy Chernobyl, shades of 1984, where anyone can find out what someone prefers to eat, read, their IQ, if they cheat on their spouse, their favorite sex positions, their social security number. The less disclosed online the better.

  • Roger Toennis

    Farhad says "Control matters. Privacy doesn't.".

    Thats only half right. Privacy does matter.
    But if people have "Control", they get "Personalized Privacy" in that bargain.

    The reality is "Control matters AND Privacy matters

  • Roger Toennis

    Great comment on the FB privacy topic by Tood Gardiner...

    "We don't care about keeping our details hidden. Except when we do. And at those times we need to have the control to close that door."

    Summed up the situation in 3 sentences. Nice job, Todd.

  • arnold waldstein

    Farhad...a very interesting post. Thanks.

    I posted on the same topic yesterday. In fact, one of your readers who often comments on my blog, referred me over here.

    My post on Facebook and privacy:

    “The best way to protect your privacy is to understand that you live in public. And act accordingly.” http://bit.ly/93kg63

    I blog on Facebook and the social web and new business models @ http://arnoldwaldstein.com

  • Todd Gardiner

    I appreciate that Facebook and others have a multi-step system for controlling my release of information.

    First level, I only enter in the personal details (religion, political party, love of the movie Fight Club) that I want to share. Things I don't want my friends to know never make it into Facebook, or Google Profiles, or whatever.

    Second level, on Facebook, I get to set those details as Friends-only, Friends-of-friends, or Everybody. For some details (e.g. e-mail), I can even set that to Nobody. Other social connections have similar controls.

    Third level, when I step outside of Facebook and connect opinions to FB (or when I Digg, or when I decided whether to write a Yelp review), I get to choose what I want to say about that subject, or even decided that I don't want to comment on it at all.

    I agree. We don't care about keeping our details hidden. Except when we do. And at those times we need to have the control to close that door.

    Currently, most of the backlash around Open Graph, Facebook's new API, is that your data is sent to the site when your friend uses the site. Little mention is made of the fact that only data you selected as "Everybody" in Facebook's privacy settings is sent. While you know that anyone can enter your name in FB and see these facts, the idea that someone can actively and easily send this to a website triggers control issues for people. The same website could just take your name and look up these details themselves, but the ease of one-click works both ways and some people, especially the EFF and Senator Chuck Schumer say that this goes too far.

    Logic does not guide this debate. These reactions are entirely about the psychology of control.

  • Siva Vaidhyanathan

    Oh Farhad. This is just so disappointing.

    Privacy is just the word we use awkwardly to mean "control" or "autonomy."

    I have so many reactions to this article. First of all, who is this "we" you are talking about? Do you really think "we" have any clue what FB and Google do to us and with us? If "We" are you and me and everyone else who reads Fast Company, then fine. Maybe you are on to something.

    But caring about privacy is not about us -- those of us who know about the Ads Preference Manager. It's about those who get their lives exposed in ways they can't know about and suffer harm from seeing information wrenched out of context.

    And really, don't you think the fact that "only a tiny fraction of people, in the 'tens of thousands,' visit the Ads Preferences Manager each week" completely undermines your argument? This is true not because people don't care. It's because people don't know. Google wants it that way.

    Second, who says geotagging and tweeting about details of one's life implies that one does not care about privacy? Only in the dictionary are privacy and publicity boolean opposites. One can reveal hundreds of details of one's sex life publicly and STILL not want anyone to know of one's religious or political interests and affiliations.

    There is no paradox. It only looks like a paradox if you take the most simplistic and limited sense of privacy and ignore that social relations DEMAND segregation as well as connection. That's why FB was great. That's why FB is now horrifying.

    You completely ignore the power of defaults and give credit for Google efforts to enhance control for you and me -- elites who think about this stuff and follow Google's blogs.

    I know FC is for techno-elites and that it does not allow for larger humanistic questions of wisdom and justice into its domain. But you usually do. What gives?