Kneale: Facebook and Privacy—What Privacy?!


The Privacy Police are on the march again, and Facebook is the target. But you gotta ask: Just what privacy are we fretting over when it involves half a billion people willingly revealing intimate details to legions of lurking digital strangers?

Facebook recently unveiled its new Places feature, letting potentially millions of people give real-time updates, complete with maps and pinpointed locations and discount coupons delivered to your handset by the store you’re visiting at that moment.

The privacy prudes already are taking up pitchforks and torches. The chat on Twitter is on high-simmer. The American Civil Liberties Union’s Northern California chapter put out a protest proclamation even before Facebook had finished announcing the new service. ACLU carps that it’s too hard for Facebook fans to opt out: “In the world of Facebook Places, ‘no’ is unfortunately not an option.”

We debated this topic on “Squawk on the Street” and “Power Lunch,” as part of our special "Tangled Web: Profits & Privacy" coverage.

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Privacy Rights Clearinghouse worries that people will witlessly reveal the precise location of their homes (though didn’t the old phonebook do that anyway?). The Center for Digital Democracy aims to get the FTC involved, a likely inevitability even without the prodding. Look for more manufactured outrage and furrowed brows in coming weeks.

And for what?

Consumers always willingly have sacrificed some privacy for convenience. We let American Express know our most personal details so we can avoid carrying a lot of cash. We don’t mind that Avis knows our profile preferences without asking, so long as we can go straight from the drop-off bus into the new rental without checking in at the counter.

Along came the social networking craze (thank you, MySpace). Suddenly people were revealing even more-personal secrets—without much of any payback in convenience. Not just their financial data, but also hobbies and passions, marital woes and sexual orientations, their political bent and religious views. And fun photos of drunken revelry.

Takes two sides to make a trade, and in this realm the two sides are exhibitionism and voyeurism.

Yet even Facebook, where the notion of privacy is akin to the idea of modesty in a strip club, will have to do a better job of protecting whatever gossamer layer of protection its users might expect, lest it suffer the wrath of its “friends.”

Last month, a new study showed Facebook scoring next-to-last among 30 online sites in consumer satisfaction. The American Consumer Satisfaction Index handed a 64 rating out of 100 to Facebook—and, as Computerworld mordantly noted, “sites for filing tax forms electronically to the IRS scored better.”

One key reason why Facebook’s “friends” were so disaffected: privacy concerns.

Regulators and self-appointed privacy advocates don’t need to get their knickers in a twist over this. A backlash by Facebook’s customers is a far better cudgel to force any fixes than any paternalistic crackdown by regulators would ever be. Can’t the privacy alarmists and government potentates just stay out of this one?

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