Correction to This Article
The column incorrectly said that Chris Kelly is on leave as Facebook's chief privacy officer. Kelly, now a Democratic candidate for attorney general of California, resigned March 16.

The latest Facebook fracas: Your privacy vs. its profit

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, April 4, 2010

The signs of a new season surround us: Flowers are blooming, trees are budding, and another Facebook privacy fracas is brewing.

The last event kicked off a week ago, when the popular social network posted a note on its blog about "working with some partner Web sites that we pre-approve to offer a more personalized experience" at those sites.

This possible change didn't exactly get a charitable read in reactions like "Facebook's Plan To Automatically Share Your Data With Sites You Never Signed Up For," and "Facebook Planning To Give Away Your Data To 'Partners.' "

How bad could things get for the 400 million-plus Facebook users when this test begins a few months from now?

The potential downside seems obvious. You'll see that some random site knows who your Facebook friends are and fret about other once-private information Facebook might be leaking. But what will you be able to do when so much of your life is tied up there?

As Sherry Turkle, a sociologist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in an e-mail Thursday: "There is a sense of the 'investment' in Facebook being so great that one is beholden to it. . . . This is not empowering."

(Before I go further, a few disclaimers: Washington Post Co. chairman and chief executive Donald E. Graham sits on Facebook's board of directors; Facebook's chief privacy officer, Chris Kelly, who is on leave to run for political office, is a friend of mine from college; and many Post staffers, myself included, use public Facebook pages to connect with readers.)

The upside isn't quite as clear.

In a phone interview Wednesday, Facebook spokesman Barry Schnitt and product director Bret Taylor said the Palo Alto, Calif., company wanted to expand its utility. In this experiment, Facebook would build on its Facebook Connect system (in which people can sign into sites such as The Post's with their Facebook accounts) to help other companies greet Facebook users with a taste of its social network.

For example, Taylor suggested that if a Facebook friend posted a link to a song on his wall and you clicked over to the record label's site, the label could tell you which Facebook pals liked the song.

This test would come with limits. You'd have to be logged into Facebook in the same browser to get any such personalized welcome elsewhere, less than 10 sites would be invited into the program at first, and each of them would have to let you easily opt out (after which each would have to delete any data Facebook had shared about you). Facebook would also provide a universal opt-out for the entire program.

To its credit, Facebook hasn't tried to spring this change on people. Beyond that blog post, it has invited users to comment on proposed changes to its privacy policy and "statement of rights and responsibilities" -- then provided a marked-up version of each showing text that has been removed and added, a step few other sites bother to take.

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