Not a shocker, folks: Facebook is forever

Feb 20, 2009 by

By Bob Sullivan, The Red Tape Chroicles

I know a computer science professor who runs the same Facebook experiment every semester. He invites his students to stand up in front of the room and show everyone their Facebook page on the big screen. No one has ever taken him up on the offer.

Why? They’re embarrassed, of course.

Moments later, the irony sinks in. Every one of them seems happy to share all those funny photographs, witty Wall postings and status updates with everyone on the planet. They just don’t want to do it in public, in person.

Facebook puts a lot of people in a lot of twisted situations, including those who try to rationalize their use of the site (Want to be safer on Facebook? There are tips below).

Studies show that about two-thirds of Americans say they care a great deal about their privacy, yet fewer than 10 percent ever do anything about it, such as destroy a store loyalty card or browse the Web with an anonymizing tool.

So it is with Facebook. This week, a dust-up — no, a tornado — hit the service when users found out about a subtle change to Facebook’s terms of service. A blogger at the Consumerist Web site posted the change, noting that Facebook now asserts the right to “copy, publish, store, retain,” anything you contribute, and that the firm’s rights to your material survive “any termination of your use of the Facebook Service.”

In other words, whatever you put on Facebook cannot be deleted. Even closing your account, removing all your pictures, and “de-friending” your friends doesn’t get your data back from the Facebook.

Everyone seems shocked by the idea that Facebook is forever, but that’s nothing new. In fact, I believe Facebook deserves some kudos for finally fessing up and including this concept in its terms of service. I’m thrilled that people are now discussing this issue.

You just can’t kill it
For years, enterprising folks who wanted to delete their Facebook pages found their only real alternative was to “deactivate” their accounts. That’s not a subtle distinction. Facebook’s terms of service say this:
“Individuals who wish to deactivate their Facebook account may do so on the My Account page. Removed information may persist in backup copies for a reasonable period of time but will not be generally available to members of Facebook ,” it reads.

Obviously, there is a hole so big there that Facebook lawyers could drive a truck through it. And in fact, for years Facebook users who wished to delete their accounts were told they had to manually delete every picture, minifeed item, friend, and so on. For an hysterical and sad account of this, read “2,504 steps to closing your Facebook account.”

Last year, Facebook tried to address a groundswell of frustration over account deletion and added a process for doing so. Users who follow a link and fill out a form are now told their accounts have been deleted. Even that advance arrived with hiccups, as many who initially tried the process were still able to find their accounts on Google. Facebook said it was a glitch, since fixed. (I’ll leave it to readers to consider why Facebook refuses to add a simple “delete my account” button on its site.)

But even after following this deletion process, users might be disappointed. Facebook accounts are so intertwined that traces of deleted members’ activities – such as wall posts — can still appear all over the site and remain on Facebook servers indefinitely.

And of course, with some data, there’s just no way to remove it:

“Where you make use of the communication features of the service to share information with other individuals on Facebook, however, (e.g., sending a personal message to another Facebook user) you generally cannot remove such communications,” the Facebook terms of service agreement reads.

This should give pause to any Facebook user who plans to get a job or have children some day. Heaven forbid you decide to run for Congress 20 years from now. And we haven’t even mentioned Facebook’s Beacon disaster, which saw the company introduce an advertising platform that followed users around the Web and reported their behavior to friends. Facebook quickly backtracked after a similar uproar.

Facebook and privacy don’t mix
By now, it should be clear that I’m a Facebook hater. I think there is no way to use the site and maintain control of your privacy. In fact, I think there is essentially no way to stay off Facebook now, which offends my sensibilities. More than once I’ve arrived at work and had someone say something like this: “Hey, I saw you were at Murphy’s last night,” because someone I barely know posted a bunch of pictures of a happy hour. That’s spooky.

I have a friend who is a foreign diplomat; she takes rather Draconian steps to prevent such a Facebook oops from occurring. At the end of every party, she walks around, grabs everyone’s camera, and deletes any pictures of herself.

I know many of you believe that you have nothing to hide, and the idea that your children might some day see your Facebook page doesn’t (currently) bother you at all. But here’s the problem with any privacy-related choice: it’s usually impossible to assess tomorrow’s consequences today. Or, to be blunt, you just never know what might come back and bite you in the butt.

What if employment background companies someday discover that anyone with more than 500 Facebook friends tends to come in late to work? No, there’s nothing illegal about that. What if you change career paths at some point and decide you want to work for a U.S. intelligence agency? You’ll have to answer for every foreign friend linked to you on Facebook – and any who ever were linked to you on Facebook.

As a general rule, you should never put anything on your Facebook account that you wouldn’t mind showing to a room full of co-workers or students.

If you must Facebook, follow these rules
That said, the company has quietly been improving its privacy controls and now does offer users a wide set of tools to protect them from each other. There is a long list of options on Facebook’s settings pages –probably far more than you’re aware of — that users should deploy when using the site. These prevent perfect strangers from knowing you’ve left your girlfriend and can also prevent your boss from seeing pictures of last week’s happy hour.

These options are elegantly summarized in a post on AllFacebook.com written by Nick O’Neill. No one should use Facebook without adjusting these settings. These include removing yourself from Google searches, using friend lists to control who sees your pictures, and how to keep your friendships private.

If all this appropriately spooks you, you can delete your account by following this link.

Interestingly, when you visit it, you’ll be presented with this surprising plea for reconsideration.

“Are you deleting because you are concerned about Facebook’s Terms of Service? This was a mistake that we have now corrected,” the page says before asking users for their e-mail address and password.

Breaking up is hard to do, it seems. Alas, in life, nothing lasts forever. Except on Facebook — and on the Internet — where everything lasts forever.

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