May 13, 2010 | By Kurt Opsahl

Facebook Should Follow Its Own Principles

About a year ago, Facebook suffered a tremendous consumer backlash over its changes to the Terms of Service. To quell the uproar, Facebook introduced a set of Principles. Through a "Facebook site governance" vote, users voted on whether these Principles should serve as the foundation for governing the site." At the time, the company trumpeted the success of the vote, by which about 75% of voters selected the new Facebook Principles: "We strongly believe that our proposed documents satisfied the concerns raised in February." As Facebook explains, the Principles are "the foundation of the rights and responsibilities of those within the Facebook Service." A year later, the foundation is cracking.

Now Facebook flatly contradicts its own stated Principles. The contradictions are clearly shown in Facebook's widely panned ([1][2][3][4][5]) response to New York Times readers' questions on the social network's brave new privacy practices. A reader asked Elliot Schrage, Facebook's vice president for public policy, the key question: "Why can’t I control my own information anymore?"

The answer should have been easy. Facebook's Principles declare:

People should have the freedom to decide with whom they will share their information, and to set privacy controls to protect those choices.

Instead of saying "Sorry, we'll fix it," Facebook's response was dismissive. The company said that "Joining Facebook is a conscious choice" and more bluntly, "If you’re not comfortable sharing, don’t." It's Facebook's way or the highway. Schrage lists the information that Facebook requires to be public information, focusing on how people choose to submit this information and make connections instead of Facebook's choice to remove privacy controls.

Another reader asked "Why not simply set everything up for opt-in rather than opt-out?" Facebook's answer was a strange exercise in Newspeak - "Everything is opt-in on Facebook. Participating in the service is a choice." In Facebook's view, simply by signing up for the Facebook service, one has opted in to whatever sharing it later desires — even if you are one of the over 300 million users who joined before the switch to "public information" without privacy controls. Facebook is going to share the information it deems public, and you're supposed to Like it.

This is not the freedom of choice that Facebook's previously vaunted Principles declare. The "foundation for governing" Facebook does not speak of control as the choice whether to share information, but with whom. Facebook's promises speak of protecting users with privacy controls, not withholding the information.

Facebook's Principles also declare that "Every Person should be able to use the Facebook Service regardless of his or her level of participation or contribution." Now Facebook suggests that the users who aren't willing to play ball must leave.

Of course, as Facebook explains in response to another question, if you decide to leave by deactivating your account, information is saved in case you decide to reactivate later. Even if you delete your Facebook account, you have to wait 14 days and even then Messages and Wall posts remain. The Facebook Principles are much clearer: Users have the right to "take [their data] with them anywhere they want, including removing it from the Facebook Service." Again Facebook is not living up to its promises.

These promises are important. These are the reassurances that helped people decide whether to trust Facebook with their information. They should not be discarded lightly, with glib quips like "Please don’t share if you’re not comfortable." If Facebook truly believes that its users "should have the freedom to share whatever information they want," it must enable that sharing by making people comfortable.

Facebook wrote these Principles and designed them to not only reassure its users, but to give itself wiggle room for the future. It is a carefully drafted document, and Facebook has no excuse not to live up to the minimum standards it set out for itself. If Facebook wants to regain the trust of its users, following its own principles would be a good place to start.


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