Privacy concerns worry some users of Facebook
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Can you still be "friends" with a bully?
The Internet has been rife this week with stories of people who have left or who intend to leave the world's busiest social networking website: Facebook, that online community of more than 400 million users who signed on to connect with old buddies, share funny party pictures or let the world know they're watching that video of a startled kitten.
Even Twitter, another social networking site, was flooded Thursday with a cacophony of tweets from people who had quit Facebook or were urging others to do so. The reason?
Since its inception more than five years ago, Facebook has incrementally removed options for user privacy. The complex cogs of the virtual machine have made it possible that, while you're logged on to Facebook but clicking on content from another site, you could have made your so-called private information available to anyone on the Internet.
"I think, to me, what is disturbing is that Facebook has turned its privacy promises inside out," said Ryan Singel, a staff writer for tech site wired.com. "It started as a place where they wanted it to be like the real world so you could share things with your friends as well as other people."
Mr. Singel cited a YouGov BrandIndex survey of 5,000 Americans that indicated Facebook is losing popularity among users 35 and older. At the same time, the powerful social networking site continues to be popular among those ages 18 to 34.
Growing unease that Facebook is taking a my-way-or-the-highway approach to what users can and can't keep private was coupled with a snafu last week that reportedly created a security hole -- since repaired -- that let everyone see your private information, postings and chats.
A number of high-profile tech figures have dumped Facebook, including Peter Rojas, co-founder of gizmodo.com and gdgt.com. Others are making contributions to a start-up social networking site called Diaspora• , where four self-described nerds from New York University are creating an online world where personal information is yours alone.
Instead of a centralized server, users would have individualized hubs, as in their own personal servers (www.joindiaspora.com).
Facebook officials declined to comment for this story.
University of Pittsburgh senior Abby Cartus, 21, signed up for Facebook before arriving at college. At first she was merely annoyed by the barrage of e-mail, messages and friend requests. When she tried to delete her account, she discovered it could only be "deactivated."
That's since changed; she has deleted her account.
Facebook doesn't give up without a struggle. Users are prompted to respond to questions in the vein of "Are you REALLY sure you want to do this? Your friends will miss you. ... "
There is a 14-day period before the account is actually deleted. Even then, some of the content is retained by Facebook.
"I feel like 99 percent of Facebook users have nothing more incriminating than embarrassing taste in music," Miss Cartus said, "but it's just creepy in that Facebook has become a transparent application for selling your personal information to advertisers."
Elliot Schrage, Facebook vice president for public policy, fielded users' questions via The New York Times this week. Scores of readers posted online in angry disbelief to one of his comments: "People assume we're sharing or even selling data to advertisers. We're not."
"Disingenuous? Very much so," said Ginger McCall, an attorney for the Electronic Privacy Information Center (www.epic.org) in Washington, D.C.
Even the most innocuous bits of the massive amounts of personal information flowing through the website can be used to craft informational profiles that, some advocacy groups are charging, are compromising user privacy and safety.
Ms. McCall, a McMurray native with an undergraduate degree from the University of Pittsburgh, helped EPIC -- a public interest research center -- and 14 other parties file a recent complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.
"The way they've gone about this is to slowly acclimate the user to the idea that there is no such thing as privacy. ... Users used to have control [over privacy settings] and now they're taking that away."
Facebook users complain that every time privacy policies change, there is no "opt-in" choice, only "opt-out." Pay attention, or you lose control.
A recent point of contention is Facebook's revision of the "Like" button. It's an innocuous-looking feature that allows your Friends to comment on stuff you've posted, or, for example, groups they support. But the "Like" button can be embedded by developers on other websites, and information that was once considered private and limited to your friends is now available to anyone on the Web.
"The horse is out of the barn with Facebook," said Ms. McCall, citing Facebook's reports of personal information sharing with Microsoft, Pandora and Yelp. Even after a profile is deleted, she said, it still exists somewhere on the Web.
A younger generation, which appears to have developed fewer filters when it comes to sharing their emotions, probably won't blink twice at the news.
"I think the meaning of privacy has changed over the years," said Bloomfield's Jessica Ghilani, 30.
A graduate student at Pitt, she will begin work as an assistant professor at the university's Greensburg campus in the fall, where she will teach, among other topics, modern media.
"In my media course in particular, we spend quite a bit of time on privacy and its evolving meaning," Ms. Ghilani said. "[Students] are much more forward in telling me things like, 'I was dumped this week,' and it's this sort of inappropriate information that will affect their professional relationships down the line."
Ms. Ghilani not only quit Facebook, but posts instructions on how to do so via Twitter. She is currently in what she calls the 14-day "Facebook purgatory."
While it's true that Facebook appears to have lost trust among many users, it's still viewed as a valuable social site.
"What we want to see happen is not for people to just quit Facebook, but people should be able to enjoy social networking where they're allowed their privacy," Ms. McCall said.
First Published May 14, 2010 12:00 am