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Posted at 07:39 PM ET, 11/29/2011

Facebook privacy — no longer an oxymoron?

Facebook Privacy, I've said before, has always been like jumbo shrimp, muscular fat or supercommittee progress — something of an oxymoron. But now, thanks to a settlement reached with the Federal Trade Commission, Facebook is going to be held slightly more accountable when it comes to privacy.

This is deeply unsettling, in that all my assumptions about Facebook revolve around it not being held accountable when it comes to privacy. The sky is blue, the grass is green, Facebook is probably off uncomfortably sharing my personal information with a corporation because I forgot to uncheck a box somewhere. It gives one a feeling of peace and security. Someone wise said that the greatest human desires are to be watched and judged. Once that role was delegated to a deity somewhere. Now it’s Facebook’s job.

But this might be slightly curtailed in future.

Preparatory to its IPO, Facebook and the FTC came to a settlement to attempt to deal with the infringements that Facebook had been accused of making on users’ expectations of privacy. The roll of accusations was pretty grim, including: “Facebook had a ‘Verified Apps’ program & claimed it certified the security of participating apps. It didn’t. Facebook promised users that it would not share their personal information with advertisers. It did. Facebook claimed that when users deactivated or deleted their accounts, their photos and videos would be inaccessible. But Facebook allowed access to the content, even after users had deactivated or deleted their accounts.”

Admittedly, Facebook users are generally a bunch who do not mind oversharing. And as Mitt Romney reminded us, corporations are people, too. Why not let them hear what I’m watching, listening to, reading and thinking of buying? Everyone else can. And unlike my live friends, the advertisers might find this information interesting or useful.

But the invasion goes beyond that. Facebook places tracking cookies on users even after they log off the site, keeping tabs on the pages they visit for 90 days. It even keeps tabs on the movements of non-users who visit a Facebook page.

This level of invasion has been dubiously justified by the proposition that Facebook is about to launch its IPO in the second quarter of next year, and it needs to mobilize user information for advertisers and generate Literally Gargantuan profits in order to justify all the hype. So far, it’s having difficulty doing that.

But if Facebook can’t figure out how to use all this information to persuade us to buy things, it should give it to me. I know how to use it. If you really want to know what lurks inside people’s minds, don’t talk to them or ask them their Zodiac signs. Look at their browser histories. Then you may no longer want to talk to them, but you will probably know how to induce them to buy things. If all else fails, your ad can simply read: “Hey! Buy this nail polish or I will e-mail the cute guy in your office and let him know that you just spent the past two hours watching montages of Saddest Disney Deaths while googling ‘Is it safe to eat cheese if you cut the green part off?’ ”

But now the FTC is imposing restrictions — first, requiring that any changers to user default privacy settings be opt-in rather than opt-out. Remember how upset we were when Facebook did it the other way around? We were so mad that a whole zero of us quit!

But now we really can quit. The settlement requires Facebook to destroy us once and for all— no one will be allowed to access our information once more than 30 days have elapsed from our quitting. There is life after Facebook.

And every two years Zuckerberg and Co. will be required to undergo an independent privacy audit to make certain Facebook stays within these and other restrictions.

This is definitely a step. Is it enough? The pressures on Facebook once its IPO happens are going to be tremendous. But this is certainly not a bad set of standards to have in place.

And it won’t stop the tracking, yet. But some Facebook privacy? How novel! I have a strange craving for jumbo shrimp.

By  |  07:39 PM ET, 11/29/2011

Tags:  Facebook, IPOhno!

 
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