Opting 'in' and 'out': examining social network privacy settings

This was first posted on my other blog, but it is relevant to media law & ethics too.

“Dear social networks, if you change privacy settings, please ask us to opt *in*, not opt *out*,” a colleague and I pleaded in a blog post written last May. “Social networks should NEVER set the default option to share users’ information,” we argued.

Our concern was about the way social networks, including Facebook, Twitter, Friendster and Google, stored and used members’ personal address book data.

For journalists, we concluded, the ‘links’ and ‘recommendations’ created by this data use could potentially destroy or expose relationships with confidential sources.

You can read more about our address importing research at these links:

We were worried about social networks’ lack of understanding and in some cases, lack of engagement with us.

And now, four months on from our investigation into address book importing, the ‘opt in’ issue has reared its troublesome head again, with the introduction of Facebook Places.

It was a case of online deja vu when I spotted this Twitter comment made by blogger and author Zoe Margolis:

@girlonetrack – I’m so sick of Facebook making users opt-out from, rather than opt-in to, the site’s settings. FULL privacy should be the DEFAULT. #FBPlaces

There are parallels with the address book importing issue. Once again, users are able to share an individual’s personal information, without that individual’s consent.

Any location based service has privacy issues for journalists who need to protect their whereabouts and activity.

UK users can already see their Places privacy settings, but so far it has only been rolled out as a feature in the US.

Fortunately for us Brits, TechCrunch has provided a detailed description of how the settings work for US users in three sets of circumstances.

Facebook says it is ‘opt-in’ but TechCrunch’s account contradicts that. Jason Kincaid reports:

Earlier today we had a bit of a fire-drill at TechCrunch Headquarters. As I checked into TCHQ on Facebook Places, I also tagged a few of my coworkers, fully expecting their checkins to be delayed until they actually opted into the feature for the first time (unlike some of Facebook’s past controversial feature launches, you have to Opt-In before you can be tagged in Places).

Except, as we quickly discovered, you really don’t have to opt in before you can be tagged. As soon as I checked in on Places, Facebook published News Feed items to my friends indicating that I’d checked in with my coworkers — even the coworkers who hadn’t yet opted into Places. My coworker received an email asking him to confirm the tag, but he had never clicked it. And yet, many of his friends were being notified that he’d just checked into Techcrunch HQ with me.

On the basis of TechCrunch’s findings, another of its writers re-graded the service from ‘B’ to ‘C-’.

In my previous dealings with Facebook, I have found them extremely responsive (whereas press enquiries to Twitter went unanswered) and the social network’s PR representative, Sophy Silver, is engaging with users about Facebook Places on Twitter.

“Just wanted to confirm you knew this was an optional feature? you can only be tagged if you opt in,” she tweeted, for example.

But I don’t understand her claim that “Places is an opt-in feature”, given TechCrunch’s report that even without opting in you can be tagged in place updates that appear in mutual friends’ news feeds, even if not on the ‘place’ page itself.

I’m also a little uncomfortable with the insinuation of another of Sophy’s tweets:

If you don’t trust your friends it is simple to turn off. For most there is a lot of value in being able to share an experience with friends

It’s not about whether or not you trust the people you know, it’s about the basic principle of keeping certain information offline for your security and peace of mind.

If an individual does not want to share geographical information about their activities, they should be able to make that choice. And your closest friends might have very different notions of privacy and safety.

I’ve asked Sophy to explain the ‘opt-in’ issue and I’ll update when I get some more information back.

I’ve added a new challenge to the Help Me Investigate group that sparked off the whole ‘opt-in’ investigation. You can join it at this link.

Update: Sophy tweeted me this:

No you have to actively opt-in to use Places. once you do default setting is Friends Only but can be changed to wider

But that doesn’t explain the confusion TechCrunch has identified.

Further reading

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