Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

The dark side of Facebook

With an estimated 350 million users and growing, it’s sometimes easy to forget that Facebook first made its mark as an exclusive social networking “club” – with the price of admission sometimes up to $80,000 in private college tuition fees.

Today, Facebook profiles might as well be set up at the moment of birth, potentially serving as an electronic collage of a life lived through status updates, likes and the occasional “poke.”

This widespread phenomenon is at the heart of an escalating war over privacy, with consequences for the casual user at work, at home and on the go.

That list of potentially affected users, incidentally, includes many of the friends on this editor’s Facebook page, found here (don’t worry Facebook friends, this profile has been set to the highest privacy protection setting).

So it was with great interest that privacy rights advocates greeted news this week of a proposed settlement in a case against the social networking giant brought by 19 users of the site’s Beacon program, which allows Facebook members to view details about their friends’ transactions with outside online retailers.

Before Facebook changed the status of the program to “opt-in,” users automatically had potentially embarrassing or compromising information regarding, for instance, movie rentals of “Cheech and Chong,” listed on public, Google-searchable web pages belonging to bank executives, teachers or working mothers of two.

Under the proposed settlement, Facebook – which is also a private corporation expected to take in $710 million in revenue this year – will put aside the bulk of a $9.5 million fund to create a “privacy foundation.”

That’s good news for most users, on the condition that the money is spent educating the public about the risks involved in posting certain information on social networking websites.

Tops of on the list of potential pitfalls is the experience of many Facebook users finding notes, photos and even status updates included in search engine results, sometimes even with privacy settings limited to certain networks, family and friends.

It’s an issue of particular importance to the business community, especially in a close-knit one as ours.

It’s also important for the legions of jobseekers, perhaps unaware of the widespread practice among human resource professionals and small business owners of checking an applicant’s email with available Facebook pages.

Even for those thinking they have nothing to hide from public view, controlling the amount of available information obtainable through Google searches a continent away cannot be a bad idea.


Kathryn said...

Excellent article. As a manager, I can't tell you how many times exchanges on Facebook have created Human Resources issues within my company, not to mention just some plain ole awkward situations. I expect this to be a topic that will receive much more critical attention in the future.