Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Facebook’s opt-out personal information sharing and its impact on online reputation and confidentiality – a proposed fix to the technology side of this problem

Posted in in the News, social networking and business by Timothy Platt on May 21, 2010

A few days ago I wrote and posted a note to this blog on Facebook and the Importance of Respecting Social Contracts, and I said at the end of that posting that this was a topic I was going to follow through on. I posted a note to my Facebook profile pointing out this initial posting and soliciting feedback and comments, and when I did so I was offered the option to restrict visibility of this note to specific groups such as my direct contacts on the site – my Facebook friends if I wanted. In a real sense, this approach would be enough for protecting my privacy and for allowing me an unrestricted ability to manage my own personal information at least for new material I post. But this capability as an automatic and immediate capability for more general protection of confidentiality assumes two conditions that do not hold for most of the information on the Facebook servers, and for at least two reasons:

1. Most of the information that user members have posted about themselves has been on these servers from before Facebook made its policy changes. And the old opt-in rules for data sharing in force when this data was uploaded to the site was not grandfathered in to protect this content. That includes, of course any and all information that these members would not want to universally share in all directions and with all potential recipients, personal and commercial.
2. We are often not the only ones who post information online and on Facebook about ourselves. Friends post notes and photos on our walls and this can include content we would not have chosen to post online. More importantly for this, friends and acquaintances (and not just our formally networked Facebook Friends) can and do post material about each other on their own walls and on third party profile walls as well, and will not automatically set the visibility options for this material as we would want them to in doing so. Most people post material without really thinking through the explicit wishes or needs as to confidentiality and reputation of the people they post about. And we may not even know what has been posted in this way about us and where. And photos that we might find harmful to our efforts in finding that next job or for other reasons may be explicitly tagged with our names, making it all that much easier for anyone researching us online to find them. That can definitely include a gatekeeper at a business we would seek work with as they perform their candidate due diligence but the possibilities of who and for what are fairly open ended in this.

An increasingly bright spotlight has been aimed at the issue of managing online information we post and that others post about us, as this might positively or negatively impact on us moving forward. That might mean limiting our opportunities for finding that next job, or for people just entering the job market their first where questionable online material can close doors. This can negatively impact our opportunity to get into graduate schools of our choice and a variety of other career and life enhancing places.

Did Facebook create this problem? No, but their change in policy as to visibility of personal information already in their system by the terabyte and petabyte (1024 gigabytes and 1024 terabytes respectively) has brought this into much more urgent focus, and this has moved a great many of their members out of their comfort zone for what information on Facebook is visible to whom. That problem, they did create.

Now that this particular genie is out of the bottle, what would I recommend that Facebook do to address potential problems they may have made for their members? That is what I would address in this posting, and I come back to a concept I mentioned in passing above – that of grandfathering in archived data from before their policy change to automatically cover it with a more restrictive friends only visibility as a default. The idea here is to take all, or at least as much as possible of what has been put online before the change and return it to a visibility status consistent with the older opt-in policy. How this is done and how it even could be done would depend on how uploaded data is organized in the Facebook databases that hold member data. I can immediately think of two possible approaches to managing this and offer them as a member contribution to the Facebook community with hopes that at least one of them might offer some value.

A quick and dirty approach as a Plan A: Any data collected into these databases that is time stamped with a date and time of entry and/or most recent update from before the policy change can be added automatically and as part of a bulk process into a new/old opt-in visibility rules list where the old opt-in policy is in effect recreated. When a particular user goes in and changes that visibility after this corrections process, their new settings would apply, and moving forward if they make an update they would be given option to set visibility as if this was a completely new data entry and according to the new rules.
A slower and more arduous approach as a back-up Plan B: Absent this coordinating time stamp data, if Facebook has been maintaining archival data backups from before the policy change, they could do automated comparisons of newest/current database version and newest pre-policy change archival version to identify data present in their system from before the policy change. They would then tag all of this older data for inclusion under an opt-in- like visibility rule as above, using known prior inclusion from the archival database copy as a substitute for time stamp data as might be maintained in the current database version in a Plan A-ready system.
And neither of these would cover for all possibilities but either would address the vast majority of situations where this change in visibility rules could compromise the reputations and confidentiality of Facebook members.

And this brings me back to the notion of honoring or violating social contracts as I cited in my previous posting on this. And this also brings me to the question of what Facebook is willing to do to acknowledge the consequences of its policy changes and to make corrections to address some very legitimate member concerns.

I strongly suspect I will be posting on this yet again as this is not the type of issue to simply go away on its own if ignored.

2 Responses

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  1. […] In the physical world we can have candid and confidential conversations. In the online world we can too, but only where we can be assured of opt-in to control who can be party to this – and only if that opt-in is not breeched to allow any and all to eavesdrop. I cite my second posting on this developing news story here in this context with Facebook’s Opt-Out Personal Information Sharing and Its Impact on Online Reputation and Confidenti…. […]

  2. […] • Facebook’s Opt-Out Personal Information Sharing and its Impact on Online Reputation and Confidenti… […]

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