The Facebook platform turns three today. While that might seem young, the sight has grown like a company four or five times its age. In just one year the site's users have doubled, from 225 to 500 million—with many simply unaware of just how available their personal details are to the world. More than a growth spurt, Facebook's toddler years are starting to feel more like a midlife crisis.
It all started yesterday morning. As Facebook prepared to mark its milestone, Mark Zuckerberg was issuing a quasi mea culpa on the Op-Ed pages of the Washington Post, rethinking the privacy issues that have been dogging the site for months now.
Today, the public relations march continues — complete with stumbles. The company's actual anniversary falls on International Missing Children's Day. But Facebook hasn't let that stop the celebration. In a blog post entitled "Helping Kids Find Their Way Home" to mark International Missing Children's Day, Facebook calls attention to its supporting role in the efforts made by law enforcement officers to return missing kids to their families. One such case, in Virginia, involved a young runaway girl, who was tracked down when she created a Facebook page. "Because of the special circumstances, including her age, we were able to get a subpoena, which allowed Facebook to disclose the Internet address of the computer she was using," says a detective from the child exploitation unit of a large law enforcement agency in the state. "Without Facebook, my job would be tremendously more difficult. I honestly don't know how I would do this work without it."
All good, right? Not quite.
This past weekend, the chief executive of British Charity Adoption UK claimed that adopted children are being contacted through social media sites by their natural parents, often in cases where the child has been taken away from them because of abuse. Contact between an adopted child and his or her natural parents, say the authorities, must happen through official channels, not via a social media site. The British Association for Adoption and Fostering has long been aware of the Facebook effect and is preparing to send out new guidance to both social workers and adoptive parents.
"We will have to build [social networking sites] into the fabric of our adoption practice and re-emphasize the importance of children knowing why they were placed for adoption and the circumstances of the birth parents," Dr. John Simmonds, the BAAF's director of policy, research and development, tells the Guardian. "There is nothing we can say to the social networking sites." Last month, the British authorities' attempt to persuade Facebook to install a Panic button on its site fell upon deaf ears, but that was before the privacy row became critical.
Facebook is now attempting to reverse the demonization of its anti-privacy stance, but you get the feeling that the details are very much a knee-jerk reaction to the negative press it has been receiving this year. Its vice president of product, Chris Cox, described the furore of the past few weeks as "massively humbling," and announced today that the firm would be rolling out revised privacy settings on May 26—that's tomorrow—that would be "drastically simplified." With over 50 different settings and 170 options, how could it not be so? We shall see tomorrow.