Facebook, privacy,

Our data: public by default, private through effort?

12 minutes to read
Romy van Geffen

Headlines such as "Facebook admits tracking users and non-users off-site" and "Germany pledges strict laws after Facebook data breach" are only a few examples that show the importance and urgency of debating privacy in our society. 

In January 2018, 3.20 billion users worldwide logged on to a social media site, a number that went up 13% compared to January 2017. This is 42% of the total world population. Moreover, it has been found that Facebook still dominates the global social landscape, with almost 2.17 billion users at the start of 2018 (Kemp, 2018). 

However, the number of Facebook users may have dropped after it was revealed that Facebook shared the data of 87 million Facebook users, without them knowing, with a data mining firm called Cambridge Analytica (Badshah, 2018). The privacy of all those users is violated and users may therefore worry how safe (or, rather, unsafe) their personal data is on Facebook (Hern, 2018). Apparently, Facebook does not do enough to secure its users' data. This gives us a reason to explore the privacy settings on Facebook. In this paper, using the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal as a case study, I will illustrate Facebook's ideas about the level of publicity and privacy on its site. The question I will answer is: How does Facebook encourage its users to be either public or private by presenting certain defaults to them?

Privacy, publicity and visibility 

According to boyd (2010), three concepts are critical to understanding social media platforms: privacy, publicity and visibility. In fact, privacy means "being in control over whatever is about you" (Potts & Tech, 2001). boyd (2010) talks about privacy not as hiding things, but rather as maintaining a sense of control, and indicates that people experience a violation of their privacy when they lack control over a situation.

Publicity on the other hand relates to "wanting an audience or wanting to be part of someone else's audience" (boyd, 2010). You can make something publicly available on social media by altering your settings from, for example, "friends only" to "everyone". However, even if content is publicly accessible to everyone that does not necessarily mean that people want that content to be publicized (boyd, 2010). Publicizing is defined as making content even more public and thus making it more widely known (boyd, 2010). This can come across as a violation of one's privacy, because making information more public "destabilizes people's sense of control and thus, their sense of privacy" (boyd, 2010). What often matters is not whether something is public or private, but how public or private it is (boyd, 2010). An example of publicizing is Facebook aggregating content in ways that make it more visible to users who could already access it (boyd, 2010).

You may now wonder about the exact difference between publicity and visibility. Visibility is defined as “an issue of seeing and being seen” (boyd, 2010). Making something publicly accessible immediately ensures visibility, right? The answer is no. Publicly accessible content is not automatically visible (boyd, 2010). This can be explained by the various algorithms Facebook applies, through which Facebook is in control of various aspects of visibility, such as friends' posts and news (Van Dijck, 2013). An example of such an algorithm that relates to visibility is EdgeRank, which ranks the importance of one's friends and favors certain users over others (Van Dijck, 2013). Friends with whom you interact frequently or on a more intimate level count more than friends you barely speak or interact with (Van Dijck, 2013). So, even though a person you barely interact with has made a status update publically available, this does not immediately mean it is visible to you. 

Having explained these concepts, we can now go a step further by claiming that the architecture of social media platforms enables certain levels of privacy and publicity. Media platforms are often characterized by certain defaults, that is, "settings that are automatically assigned to a software application to channel user behavior" (Van Dijck, 2013, p. 32). The default options of social media platforms are the ones the platform automatically recommends. These options express the ideologies these platforms adhere to. If the default option when posting something on Facebook is "public", then Facebook pursues openness, publicity and a high level of sociality on its platform. If this is the default, then making something private may take (too) much effort. This is the real problem of today's architectures, because if changing a default option takes (too much) effort, users are more likely to conform to the platform's decision architecture (Van Dijck, 2013). As a result, our data will most likely be "public by default and private through effort" (boyd, 2010). 

Public by default, private through effort 

The claim that we have moved into an era of “public by default and private through effort”, means that everything is publicly accessible and available online if we do not change anything ourselves (boyd, 2010). Here, ‘changing’ means taking the effort to make something private, by, for example, changing your privacy settings on Facebook. Other kinds of efforts include writing in a coded language, using abbreviations that (for example) parents do not understand, or switching media platforms (boyd, 2010).

Harcourt (2015) calls this era the age of the expository society, in which exhibition, watching and influences are key factors. Today we seem to enjoy self-exposure, giving away our most intimate information passionately and voluntarily. Facebook is a great example of the expository nature of the society we live in. Facebook tracks users’ web activity in order to tailor ads. This practive remains largely unopposed, because it improves user experience and satisfies users' desires, providing them with ads that perfectly match their preferences. Mostly, users easily reveal themselves online and make themselves virtually transparent to surveillance – entirely voluntarily. 

Facebook anticipated this: in April 2010, Mark Zuckerberg explained at Facebook's F8 conference that the company's mission was to build a web where “the default is social” in order to “make the world more open and connected” (Schonfeld, 2010). This says something about Facebook's ideologies. In 2010, their ideology could be described as an open platform where people have "instantly social experiences wherever they go" (Schonfeld, 2010). Information about users' profiles was set to "public", which meant that this information could be seen by everyone – despite evidence that its users wanted otherwise

However, in 2014, it was announced that Facebook changed the default settings of a status update from "everyone" to "friends" (Gayomali, 2014). Hereby, Facebook admitted its 'mistake' concerning privacy settings. The company was basically saying: “you guys were right, we were wrong.” However, today, four years later, there are more privacy settings on Facebook than only those for status updates. It is therefore interesting to look at Facebook's idea of the level of publicity and privacy in 2018. 

Privacy settings on Facebook 

The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal highlights just how important it is to keep track of your privacy settings and the apps you use that are connected to your Facebook account. In several Facebook settings, privacy plays a pivotal role. The Facebook settings that will be discussed in this paper are: status updates, profile information and app settings. 

Status updates 

Status update is a feature that "allows users to post and share a small amount of content on their profile". Users may update their status with what they are doing at that moment (e.g. “listening to Spotify”) or how they are feeling (e.g. "feeling in love"). Also, status updates can offer a mundane observation (e.g. "the sun is shining") or a request (e.g. "booked a holiday to Bali this summer, tips anyone?"). In this context, it can be important to control who can see those posts, because, presumably, no one wants their boss spying on personal activities or future planned events. There are four main options regarding the visibility of your status update: "everyone", "friends", "friends except..." (where you can name friends whom you don't want to see your post) and "only you". In addition, the option "more" gives you the opportunity to post only for the eyes of various groups you are a member of. 

Profile information 

Your profile information consists of several elements (see Picture 1). Let's take as an example Contact and Basic Info, which is the most extensive profile information option. This option consists of contact information, websites, social links and basic information. In contact information, you can add your e-mail, mobile phone number and address. In basic information, you can add your birth date (day and year), gender, sexual orientation and religious and political views. Within these options, you can manage the visibility by choosing as a range either "public", "friends", "friends of friends", "only me" or "custom", in which you can add specific people you do not want to share your profile information with. 

Picture 1. A screenshot of one's Facebook profile information. 

App settings 

Via the option Apps and Websites you can see which apps and third-party services are connected to your Facebook account. Those apps have access to your public profile, friend list, timeline posts, events, photos, tagged places and e-mail address (see Picture 2). There are two visibility options: public or private. 

Picture 2. An example of the information provided with a third-party service (via Facebook). 

Default settings on Facebook 

Now it is time to put things into practice: what are the default options of those privacy settings on Facebook? As mentioned above, default options are defined as settings that are automatically assigned to a software application; in this case Facebook. 

The default option of a status update is an interesting one. When posting on Facebook for the first time, you get a notification about the visibility of the post (see Picture 3). The default option is "friends", but that notification instantly gives you the opportunity to change the visibility to "public". The idea behind this default setting, presumably, is that Facebook actually wants the default to be social (i.e. public). In that way, Facebook can control the visibility of users' posts. The more users decide the default to be "public", the more Facebook can apply the EdgeRank algorithm and thus create maximum visibility for its users. However, due to criticism from its users about privacy, Facebook made "friends" the default. Providing this notification, however, makes it easy and fast for users to change the default to "public", without much effort. 

Picture 3. The default option of a status update. 

Moreover, there are various default settings for profile information. By default, Facebook sets information about your work, relationships, family, details about you and places where you've lived as "public". Also by default, everyone can send you a friend request or direct message, and search engines outside of Facebook can automatically link to your profile (see Picture 4). Your address and life events are, by contrast, by default available to friends only. Your basic information is available to "friends of friends" by default. 

Picture 4. The default options of Facebook's user profile information.

By default, apps and websites connected to your Facebook account automatically have permission to publicly access your basic profile information, which includes your name, gender, age, profile photo, friends list, timeline posts, events, tagged places and e-mail address. This information is thus public by default. Your name, gender, age and profile photo are even required for connecting such apps with Facebook. Strangely enough, Facebook’s apps and website permissions are not found in the privacy settings. For adjusting these settings, you’ll need to go to the App Settings page on Facebook where you can adjust the amount of information accessible to those apps, or remove the third-party apps you no longer use. However, revoking those permissions or even deleting the apps connected doesn’t mean you’ve removed that data from the third-party app’s servers (Nguyen, 2018). Those apps may have already stored your data, and you’ll need to contact the app developer to have them delete that information. 

Our data: public or private? 

To conclude, it is clear that Facebook's idea about the level of publicity and privacy has changed a lot through the years. In fact, Facebook wants to have a high level of publicity on its platform, since it wanted the world to be "more open and connected" (Schonfeld, 2010). However, Facebook has to take into account that privacy is something that most people value deeply. Just as boyd (2010) stated, even in the social media age, privacy is not dead. However, different media apply different privacy settings and principles, such as publicity and visibility (boyd, 2010). For this reason, Facebook should be clear about its privacy settings. 

In conclusion, Facebook encourages its users to be public in many instances. Many settings are still "public by default and private through effort". This counts for your profile information and the connection between your Facebook account and third-party apps and websites. Posting a status update is visible to "friends only" by default, but the notification (Picture 3) makes changing the default to public fast and easy. This is, I think, the best example of how Facebook encourages its users to be public by presenting certain defaults. Another example is the requirement of having your name, gender, age and profile picture publicly available for third-party apps and websites. Referring to Harcourt's (2015) statement about the expository nature of our society, we easily give up information in order to satisfy our desires and experience user enjoyment. Facebook knows this and therefore anticipated by making user information "public by default" and "private through effort". However, due to the considerable criticism from Facebook users, it is plausible to assume that the "social infrastructure" of data is no longer something that many of us will be taking for granted.

Given the rapidly growing importance of data privacy, Facebook needs to do its best to reorganize and improve the privacy settings for its users. At the end of March 2018, Facebook already announced changes that will make it easier for users to find privacy settings, control what they share, and delete their data (Terdiman, 2018). However, the question is whether Facebook also will change certain default settings that will turn the era into a more private one, with more private default settings. 



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