It's the Internet Age. Do you know where your online profile is ... and who's looking at it?
These and similar questions bubbled around the Internet and media last week after Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged that his company took too long to respond to users' complaints about the way a new feature shared information about their online activities. (Facebook is a popular social-networking site.)
The complaints centered on a new Facebook advertising feature called Beacon. Beacon lets Facebook members keep their Facebook "friends" informed about their Web-surfing habits. In other words, any friend could potentially see every site you visited online, and – in some cases – if you made a purchase there. More than 50,000 Facebook members signed an online petition, started by online activist group MoveOn.org, asking that Beacon be scaled back.
Beacon worried some of my Facebook friends for its effect on holiday shopping. Theoretically, if you went to Amazon.com to buy the new Amy Winehouse CD for your girlfriend, and both of you were Facebook members, Beacon would notify her immediately. So much for surprise.
This is the second time Facebook has been the subject of a protest. In 2006, more than 700,000 people signed an online petition asking Facebook to improve privacy inside the site.
"I think it was an astonishing blunder on Facebook's part, but I can understand why they were so tone-deaf in the first place," my friend and National Public Radio colleague Andy Carvin told me. Andy is NPR's senior product manager for online communities. He's also a founding editor and former coordinator of the Digital Divide Network, an online community of some 10,000 Internet activists in 140-plus countries working to bridge the digital divide. On social networking questions, he's my go-to guy.
"One of the reasons Facebook is popular is that it makes it so easy for users to follow their friends' activities," Andy says. "For people who want their lives to be an open book, it's a great tool. It seems that Facebook took that idea one step too far by making users' purchasing decisions equally transparent, then not making it an opt-in service."
Facebook will now let users opt-out of Beacon. But Stefan Berteau, a senior research engineer at CA, a software company based in Islandia. N.Y., has found that even opting-out may not help. If a user has ever selected the "remember me" check box on the Facebook entry page – so they don't have to log on every time – Facebook can link activities on third-party Beacon sites directly to him or her, even if he's logged off and has opted out of using Beacon. And even if a user has never checked the box, Facebook still collects information but won't display it to others.
Facebook confirmed Mr. Berteau's findings, but says that it deletes the information received in such cases.
But the whole Facebook situation is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the loss of privacy on the Internet.
Take Google: It remembers every search ever done on it, forever. It also remembers the exact computer that made each search for up to two years. Take Gmail, its popular e-mail program: Google computers "read" every Gmail and look for key words to help pick out the right ad to display to each Gmail user. It's also possible for Google to track every website that users visit and index every file inside their computers. (The Bush administration is eagerly backing legislation to allow online companies to hand over this kind of user data without being sued.)
On social-networking sites like Facebook, the idea is to knowingly share information. You join Facebook to connect with friends online on a more intimate level. Facebook members love it.
But it may not just be Facebook friends sharing information. Late last week, Facebook acknowledged that Beacon "may collect information on non-Facebook members." Any computer used to access a Facebook account becomes a tracking machine for Facebook computers. Again, Facebook says it destroys information collected this way.
But privacy advocates note that Facebook's reluctance to better explain its data-collection methods only makes them more concerned.
Does the growth of social networking mean the end of privacy?
"[T]he more you reveal about yourself online," says my friend Andy, "including your daily habits, your friends, your shopping habits, etc. – the more that data can be used to create value for the social networking company and their partners.... A lack of privacy becomes a fundamental part of their business models."
In this case, he continues, Facebook crossed the line, and users rebelled. "But not all Internet users are paying attention to privacy policies. And the less attention they pay, the greater likelihood they might find themselves being exploited."
So I'll ask again: It's the Internet age. Do you know where your online profile is, and who's looking at it?