Changes to Facebook Privacy Settings: An Information Literacy Perspective

Facebook recently altered its privacy settings for users. Most notably, it removed the ability to hide your profile from a general search.  There will still be settings to determine what information is visible to the public, friends of friends, and your friends, but now, theoretically, anyone can find you.  The other changes are made with the intention of disambiguating what can and is being done with your information online with specific criteria applied to individual apps.

Perhaps more compelling is the change in how decisions of this type are made.  Voters overwhelmingly chose to maintain the old privacy settings, with Computer World reporting, “The vote, which ended Monday at 3 p.m. ET, showed 589,141 users opposed to the change and 79,731 in favor.” 

However, these numbers also reveal the high number of apathetic users.  In order for a decision to be “binding” 30% of users, or approximately 300 million, must take part in a vote.  Even this is no longer the case, as following the vote, Facebook decided to remove this voting apparatus, and will now determine what privacy settings are without even the perception of user feedback.  

Why I Disagree

This is what I as an information professional find most disturbing, just as I would be opposed to an end of democracy. Because of low voter turnout, so too do I find value in maintaining a mechanism for user feedback, even if it is not universally embraced or even embraced by the seemingly random 30% required.  I recognize this sounds hyperbolic, and there are two arguments against this theory: one, Facebook is an independent, for-profit business, and, two, users may vote with their feet.  

Here is my rebuttal: even in the private sector, there are mechanisms in place to protect the consumer.  Google Buzz had to settle for the use of deceptive practices, and Microsoft had to end its monopolistic practices.  I am not arguing that Facebook is similarly in violation of federal law, but the company is currently paying a settlement for privacy violations, so I would be in favor of as many safeguards as possible to protect the users.  

The second argument enters into a far more ambiguous gray space, but as a philosophy major and information literacy advocate, I believe I am positioned to provide some response.  

First of all, Facebook has a great deal of sway, as it is approaching one billion users, and I believe it is appropriate to say its greatest commodity is its user base.  

However, how much does an individual user influence their market, particularly when weighed against some of the business entities that might wish to mine Facebook data for commercial purposes?  Even if a million users drop out in protest, will this greatly impact Facebook’s bottom line?  

A Gap in Information Literacy Among Users?

More concerning to me is who is using Facebook and what their potential gaps in information literacy are.  Over twenty percent of the users of Facebook are under the age of eighteen, which also has potential legal implications.  Also, many more grandparents are beginning to use Facebook, and there is a growing adoption of Facebook in the Global South.  

All of these demographics present potential information literacy concerns.  These users may not understand what can be done with their data or even who can potentially see what is posted online.  I understand that I should not post anything on Facebook that I would not want a potential employer or loved one to see, but this is not universally known.  

There is a vulnerable user group who also wants the connectivity (currently, nearly exclusively available on Facebook). They may not know the implications that come with joining a social media site, nor the fluidity of that site’s privacy controls. 

Make Your Voice Heard

In the housing market and in the credit card industry, there has often been a tendency to blame the ignorance of the victim.  I am all for educating individuals in fiscal, information, and other forms of literacy, but I also recognize and appreciate the need for a Credit Card Bill of Rights.  

Similarly, in social media, there should be protections for vulnerable users who can benefit from the services.  I am not advocating for these rules to be imposed by the government; industry or user regulation may be more appropriate.  However, I see a danger in a social media leader not only going against the will of those impassioned enough to respond to a vote, but also to then close this voting mechanism.  

Ultimately, Facebook is a private business with the goal of being profitable. However, this goal cannot be allowed to overshadow the rights of its users.  If the Occupy Wall Street movement has taught me anything, it is that there is a third way to vote: with our voices!

Are you concerned about the changes in Facebook’s privacy settings? Did you participate in the company’s vote on this issue? Sound off in the comments section below. 

Matthew Gunby

I am a second year student at the ISchool, working towards my Masters in Library and Information Science. I am specifically focusing on public libraries, but also the interface of the academic community with the broader community. I have a keen interest in understanding how libraries use spaces, both physical and digital, and how this interaction can be curated to better serve the institution(s)'s mission. Finally, I am curious about motivation and how it can impact both users and current non-users. Some of the areas I have approached this in so far have been through game theory, alternate currencies, and the drivers of volunteer services and non-profits.

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