Jennifer O’Dell is a JD candidate at Osgoode Hall and Denise Brunsdon is a social media writer and researcher.
In the wake of GooglePlus’ (Google+) strong launch with its much-lauded privacy settings, Facebook recently announced their new contribution to Internet privacy in social networking. For those hoping that these changes signal an important ideological shift toward user-centric rights for a notoriously disrespectful digital empire, you may want to stop holding your breath. Despite intense media coverage during their roll-out, the changes are both theoretically and pragmatically underwhelming.
Under the new privacy settings you can now pre-approve tagged photos before they appear on your profile; access a drop-down menu to more easily coordinate who can see what on your profile; and – finally – change privacy settings on prior posts.
The reaction to Facebook’s revamped settings have been mixed. Many optimists welcome the changes as a positive step forward. But the accolades come with caveats. For the security gurus – many of whom have the rare ability to couple genuine understanding of this social site’s functionality with a genuine understanding of the potential privacy initiatives that could be undertaken – Facebook should be leading the way in privacy control rather than following. Some cynics would argue that “following” is a generous way to describe Facebook’s so-called privacy overhaul and that this corporate redirecting is more likely motivated by shrinking digital market share than substantive political reorientation.
If we could go into the weeds quickly, we have listed a couple of the most obvious holes in the new options, though there are many additional ones.
Yes, you can pre-approve a photo before it appears on your profile, but realistically, unless that one friend is not friends with any of your other friends, a significant number of people in your social network will still have access to that photo, tagged or not. Facebook seems to be catering to the demographic concerned with the information that an employer could see peering into a personal page. However, the personal sovereignty over one’s online reputation through photos is only skin-deep; virtually every other social group remains unaffected by this new feature and will continue to be able to see the photos. Being powerless to a tag was certainly arcane, but the time has come for a more aggressive discussion around the idea that perhaps a person should be able to request a removal, a crop or a blurring of a photo containing their likeness.
Similarly, the drop-down menu to coordinate access levels still requires significant preparatory work by the member to use. Had Facebook allowed a plethora of privacy/blocking delineations from its inception – as Google+ did with circles – then the ability to quick-select access levels for newly posted information would be useful. Unfortunately, most users were already several hundred “friends” deep before Facebook even thought to allow for anything other no-holds-barred friending. The onus remains on users to retroactively go through and re-allocate original friend lists into preferred privacy settings in order to truly allow the drop-down menu function to be useful. Facebook’s drop-down menu would be much more impressive if accompanied by a more user-friendly way of systematizing friends post-acceptance.
One of the more interesting aspects from the Canadian perspective is the relative silence from Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart. Stoddart has been an influential force vis-à-vis Facebook’s privacy settings and was one of the first prominent voices to raise key questions about how this Internet giant stores or shares our online personal information. In 2009 Stoddart concluded a yearlong report which stated that Facebook had been “operating outside of the country’s private sector privacy law.” She had identified consent as one of the major stumbling blocks in Facebook’s privacy development.
Though Stoddart would undoubtedly welcome the new advances in Facebook’s privacy controls and their increased emphasis on consent, it would be interesting to know if she feels that these revamped rules are as broad and encompassing as the ones she had envisioned in her report.
From a practical perspective, it is unlikely that someone in a role as generally charged with the safeguarding of privacy for an entire nation will be able to keep up with the minutiae and detailed pros and cons of complex social networks, which are currently springing up or mutating weekly or even daily. At the rate of code development and website improvement, the days of privacy reports that take aim at one social network won’t last. The country needs a set of forum-agnostic privacy principles that can be mass-applied as a check against not one, but all social networks.