Facebook: The Only Hotel California?

February 14th, 2008 by Grace Meng

As the subject of recent splashy news on privacy and personal data collection, Facebook is starting to seem a little scary. In the words of one former user, Nipon Das, “It’s like the Hotel California. You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.” We’ve heard how difficult it is to remove yourself from Facebook.

We’ve seen how Facebook initially chose to launch Beacon, a advertising tool that told your friends about your activities on other websites, such as a purchase on eBay, without an easy opt-out mechanism, until outrage and a petition organized by MoveOn.org forced Facebook to change its policy.

Facebook employees are even poking around private user profiles for personal entertainment.

But although Facebook is at the forefront of a new kind of marketing, it’s not the only company with discomforting privacy policies and terms of use. Facebook’s statement that its terms are subject to change at any time is standard boilerplate. Its disclosure that it may share your information with third parties to provide you service is also pretty standard. After all, it’s certified by TRUSTe, the leading privacy certifier for online businesses. In fact, Facebook is arguably more explicit than most companies about what it’s doing because by its very nature, it’s more obvious that users’ personal information is being collected.

You could argue that the users do have a choice. They could choose not to use Facebook. But how did it turn out that in the big world of the internet, we have only two choices: 1) provide your personal information on the company’s terms; or 2) don’t use the service?

So far, it’s not clear that the controversy around Facebook has led to increased public concern about other companies and their personal data collection. It doesn’t even seem to have spilled over to all the programs that run on Facebook’s platform. No one seems perturbed that the creator of some random new application for feeding virtual fish now has access to his or her profile.

But there clearly is growing public unease, an increasing sense that our Google searches or our online purchases may be available to people we don’t know and can’t trust. Perhaps Facebook will end up providing an invaluable public service, albeit inadvertently, in making more people wonder, “What exactly did I agree to?”

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