With new privacy changes, Facebook takes advantage of users

If you’re one of the many college students who use Facebook, good luck keeping your personal information private. Facebook’s recent privacy changes have made it almost impossible to limit what third parties can and can’t see, and by doing so, the company is taking advantage of the people who made Facebook the success story it is today – its users.

To keep information private so only friends can see it, a user has to decide between more than 170 options and click through 50 privacy buttons on average, according to The New York Times. And if you want to actually understand how your personal information is being shared with the world, you have to read through the 5,830-word privacy policy. Still have questions? Take a look at the privacy-related FAQ section that has a word count of more than 45,000.

Not only is Facebook taking advantage of its users, it’s trying to hide what it’s doing in a tangle of complicated settings and policies. This is wrong. A company as large as Facebook needs to be honest and give clear explanations for its actions. Facebook has done neither.

Instant messages attributed to Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg when he was 19 years old provide interesting insights into his attitudes toward privacy. In one of the messages attributed to Zuckerberg, he says people who submitted personal information to the original Harvard version of Facebook and trusted him with it were “dumb [expletive]s.”

And yes, Zuckerberg is now 26 and the CEO of a multibillion-dollar company, but Facebook’s current privacy policies seem to follow a similar line of thought. Maybe we are dumb for trusting Zuckerberg and the rest of the company not to misuse our information or invade our privacy.

One might argue that Facebook users shouldn’t complain because they get to use the service for free. But where would Facebook be without its millions of users looking at the advertisements and bringing in ad revenue? Facebook without any users is dead, so users should be able to voice their concerns, especially their concerns over privacy.

Changes pose privacy pitfalls

The new changes allow Facebook to share users’ personal information with more third-party websites than ever before. And the worst part is, these are now the default settings. If you want to opt out, you have to navigate the confusing maze of options and settings. And even then, some of your information can never truly be private.

For example, the new community page feature links to information about a user’s hometown or university. The only way to prevent this information from being shared is to actually delete the information from your profile.

Applications are an even greater threat to privacy. Applications pull information from a user’s profile, and Facebook doesn’t have the resources to police the numerous applications it supports to make sure all third parties are using the information legally.

I understand Facebook makes money from advertising, and that’s fine. But it gets scary when third parties can access every single detail of your life and use the information however they want. It opens up the door to thousands of worrisome scenarios. I want to feel secure on a social networking site instead of feeling like Big Brother is taking note of everything I post.

College students were the first to embrace and popularize Facebook. They have dealt with Facebook widening to include high schoolers, professors and employers. But college students shouldn’t have to worry about privacy issues on top of it all. They should be able to post personal information without worrying which company will see it or who will use it for questionable purposes.

People have begun leaving Facebook in protest. One alternative to Facebook, called Diaspora, has been created to give users control over their personal information and what they post. Another alternative for college students only, Collegiate Nation, is similar to the early college-student-exclusive Facebook. It’s designed to give disenchanted Facebook users more privacy and control.

But even though these new social networking websites are intriguing, I’m not planning to delete my Facebook account. Instead, I think Facebook users should band together to tell Facebook executives how they feel. Small groups of people might not accomplish much, but if the more than 400 million people who are registered with Facebook all speak out, I’m betting Zuckerberg and the rest will pay attention.

Privacy is important, even in our digital age where nothing personal is sacred. If we want to hold on to the small sections of privacy we have left, we Facebook users need to let the company know that we want clear explanations and a better privacy policy. I don’t want to look back five years from now and regret being “dumb” enough to trust Facebook with my personal information.

Katie Broadwell can be reached at klbroadwell@stthomas.edu.