Privacy and transparency

Recently Facebook has introduced a few feature which has raised a lot of attention among users and bloggers. This piece of the system, called the News Feed shows you activity of your contacts within Facebook. If your friend posts to their blog, uploads a photo, attends an event or changes almost anything in their profile, these show up in your news feed. Many of the users have voiced complaints, saying that this is an infringement of their privacy, namely exposing their activities in a way that makes it easy for people to track their behavior.

Why would Facebook implement such a feature? My guess is that they hope this new level of transparency will cause people to be more active. For instance, if I see that my friend is attending an event, I might choose to join them and attend as well. This type of event log is not new; Upcoming has had a similar feature for many months now. In both cases these logs detail events happening around the system that could be observed otherwise, but in a form that is much more easily consumed. Why do Facebook users care? The system has now made peoples actions too transparent, in a way that would limit their ability to express themselves without fear of their privacy being breached. In fact, the result of this new feature may have the opposite effect than they anticipated: users might start censoring their actions in order to avoid being noticed.

As another example, take the political campain contribution website Fundrace.org. Thanks to campaign financing laws, all contributions of over $200 to a political campaign or party must be made public. These data are collected by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and made available in electronic form for download. Eyebeam researchers took the files provided by the FEC, indexed them, and made a search engine available to the web. Now anyone could easily find contributers by their last name or address.

One result of this simple transformation was that campaign contributers thought their privacy had been breached. Even though their contributions are required to be public, that does not mean that they are required to be indexed so that people can be easily found. In this case Eyebeam made the FEC data more transparent, and as a result, those who contributed felt betrayed.

In developing social software, there is an inherent tradeoff between transparency and privacy; finding the correct balance is a demanding task, and one that needs to be carefully user-tested. While the overall benefit to a system might be positive, some features will cause some users to be angry, while others will result in serious privacy infringements. While the benefits to tranparency can be huge, users must feel safe and protected at all times, and the transition from comfort to discomfort can happen in a matter of seconds.

Online communities just a few years ago were mainly opaque about user activities, most probably in protection of EULAs and privacy advocacy. Nearly every Web 2.0 company alerts you when people have affected your account, such as somone adding you as a contact in Flickr or Myspace. It’s only now that we’re pushing up against this line of transparency, and I would expect in the next few years a set of best practices will evolve as to what features are admissable and which are not.