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 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.

4 thoughts on “Privacy and transparency

  1. Wouldn’t a simple solution for Facebook be for them to offer an “opt-in” feature, so if you wanted to share your changes in the News Feed, great, if not, then your privacy is in tact? Opting-in to transparency, if you will. Obviously not a solution for the FEC dilemma, however. Agreed that privacy features will need to be thought out a heck of a lot more as people realize their privacy could be sacrificed otherwise; the repercussions of that sacrifice will likely be huge in ways yet to be imagined.

  2. As a facfebook user, I personally love the news feed. It lets me keep up with old friends in a way that transcends “hey what’s up” conversations. Not only is the information in the news feed already available a la the FEC documentation, but in the case of the facebook, it is only available to people whom you have actively recruited into your network, and with whom you engage in facebook activity with. While it is an issue of transparency, I think it speaks to a larger issue of social networks, and the necessity for people to use them in some instances to only have real friends on their lists. When friendster started, I took great care to add only people I knew in real life. For the first few months it was a great experiment to see who knew who knew who. Soon people were adding radioactive rod, and thousands of other friends real and imaginary, and the idea of an on-line six-degrees was lost.

    If you don’t want someone seeing your feed, take them out of your friends network. They can see all of the information anyway, because you put them there.

  3. Building a feature that requires an opt-in is pretty tough to justify, largely because so few people opt-in. The Facebook has phenomenal user metrics, but that’s probably not even enough. If 5 to 10% of their users opted-in to publishing the feeds in the first 90 days, would that be enough for them to have built them?

    That said, the rollout was unnecessarily heavy-handed. Users could have been warned for a couple weeks, given an opt-out option or something similar. The controversy would have been partially or entirely muted in that case.

  4. Stumbled on this when I put “privacy” and “transparency” in Google. I appreciate your perspective on this. When are our lives too public? How do we preserve our internal worlds? The new public face of the Internet reminds me of being a kid and having Mom snoop in my Diary. We need places where we can have inner circles of trust.

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