Dec 092011

Last week the FTC announced a settlement with Facebook stemming from charges it misled users about the use of their personal information. The agreement calls for the company to submit to independent privacy audits for the next 20 years. Here’s coverage from Mashable and the Wall Street Journal.

Another interesting take on the news was taken by Dan Lyons. I first got to know his stuff as the technology columnist at Newsweek, and now I read his blog and his article on Daily Beast. He’s sometimes over the top but always entertaining.

His take on the Facebook news is a lot like what I did back in August when the Google/Motorola deal was announced. I took the official statement from Larry Page and tried to decipher what he really was saying, what he would have liked to say plainly if he could.

Here Lyons tries to jump into Mark Zuckerberg’s head and writes a fictionalized message to Facebook users. It’s cutting and good read.

Going beyond Facebook, I’ve felt for a long time it’s high time for more candor about online privacy tradeoffs. As I wrote on CircleID relating to the supercookie debate, more online companies should be transparent with users about the online business model. Cheap services and fun apps are provided in exchange for personally identifiable information, which is then monetized through advertising. As the fictional Zuck says in the Lyons piece:

This isn’t just about Facebook. This is about Google, Apple, and Amazon. It’s Microsoft and Yahoo. It’s every social network, every location-based service. It’s the entire online ecosystem, this new bazillion-dollar industry, this global force that is disrupting every industry in the world by introducing a model where instead of paying for stuff with money you pay with your personal information. What are you going to do? Opt out of everything on the Internet? Good luck with that.

Of course, you can always protect yourself by not sharing too much personal information. The FTC ruling will help on that front to ensure that things like full disclosure to all isn’t the default option.

But users also need to look in the mirror hard before crying foul about online privacy. When given a transparent environment so they understand the tradeoffs, I believe often they will decide its worth it to trade personal information for services.

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