Facebook Privacy Changes Not as Bad as You Think

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A week ago, Facebook announced a round of changes to its two governing documents. Most of these edits were inconsequential, although one would end a worthy experiment in online democracy. And the response so far? Apathy, confusion and a bonus helping of blustering status updates consisting of meaningless legalese, all debunked months ago, in which users "hereby declare that my copyright is attached" to everything they post.

This should not have surprised people. Facebook earned extra suspicion with the news-dump timing of its proposed changes (my e-mail heralding them arrived at 10:46 p.m. on the eve of Thanksgiving), but in other respects we've seen this movie before.

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Remember when a 2009 change to Facebook's policies looked like it would give the social network the right to keep your data forever? How a different display order and the "ticker" would destroy the utility of the News Feed (which itself, a few years earlier, was going to destroy Facebook)? How the arrival of the timeline profile interface would upend everybody's image?

Each time, the results have been less dramatic, in part because users neglect these new features, and in some cases Facebook stages its own retreats.

(Disclosures: I market myself on Facebook; so does Discovery News.)

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In this episode, the Menlo Park, Calif., company's proposed changes to its "Statement of Rights and Responsibilities" and "Data Use Policy" look especially undramatic.

As you can see in the "redline" PDFs showing additions and deletions to each document (a practice that other sites should follow), the biggest change would delete a Facebook user's right to vote on privacy-policy changes.

I'm not thrilled about the end of an experiment I applauded at its debut in 2009, but it's been a meaningless exercise so far.

In the first such balloting, 665,654 users voted in the spring of 2009: at best, a third of a percent of the more than 200 million people on Facebook then. Then this summer, 342,632 showed up at the virtual polls out of 900 million-plus users — even farther from the 30 percent turnout that would make a vote binding.

The only other major expansion of Facebook's reach here is the ability to merge user data from Instagram — no shock after it spent $741 million in cash and stock on that photo-sharing service — and future acquisitions.

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Other adjustments only describe in greater detail what the company and other users can do with your data. (It should have underscored the risk involved in accepting friend requests from people you barely know.) One line about being able to restrict who can send you messages got dropped in this revision, but the company has already said it's adding filtering options.

What else could Facebook have said to drain the drama from these changes? It could have reminded users that it already got busted for loosening people's privacy settings without permission. Almost a year ago, Facebook agreed in a sweeping settlement with the Federal Trade Commission that any serious changes to its users' visibility would require their "affirmative express consent."

That deal also requires better policing of third-party apps, regular third-party audits of Facebook's privacy policies for the next 20 years and the prompt wiping of a deleted account's data, among other measures, and won approving comments from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and others.

Admitting that your mistakes made for a federal case may not be good publicity for most companies. But if Facebook wants to show it's changed, maybe this is a "Life Event" worth highlighting on its own timeline.

Credit: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery

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