Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Facebook policy upsets millions

Millions of Netizens suddenly face the prospect of having key personal information and posts made accessible to everyone, unless they consciously monitor their privacy settings.

Facebook, the world's largest online social networking site, recently announced that in order to encourage members to share more information on the internet, it has upgraded its privacy settings, making several categories of information of its users visible by default to everyone.

Why this assumes significance is because Facebook allows its users to chose their level of privacy, by letting them restrict access to either friends, friends of friends or everyone. It's a feature that has helped the site gain many users and is in line with its mantra of "control what you want to share."

But with the recent change -- unless users actively manage their privacy settings themselves -- their information like Family and Relationship, Education and Work, and their posts will be made visible to everyone, regardless of what their previous privacy settings were.

This has made many of the sites 350 million users see red. "The way these changes have been implemented has created a sense that I'm being forced to share more than I want," says Manish Sinha, an IT professional. Online observers believe the revised settings are a tactical move by Facebook to get search engines to index more information from the website, in order to counter growing competition from microblogging sites like Twitter.

"I wouldn't want prospective employers to see profiles that I create on social networking sites," points out Sinha. Electronic privacy groups are already up in arms against Facebook. Recently, the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a legal complaint in the US against the social networking site's new privacy settings, claiming the changes violate user expectations, diminish user privacy, and contradict Facebook's own representations.

Cyber law expert Pavan Duggal says the development is likely to open up a Pandora's box of interesting legal situations for social networking sites. "A large number of netizens do not look at the existing settings pertaining to the privacy once they have created their accounts. By a single stroke of change of settings and change of terms which have not been given enough coverage within the netizen community, we are going to see a recipe for potential privacy violations," he says.

On their part, Facebook officials have claimed that the changes have been aimed at providing more options for users and that regulatory bodies like the Federal Trade Commission had been informed about these changes. But among surfers, the site seems to have lost some face.