Guest blogger Elizabeth Winkler reports from the South by Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSWi):

SXSWi is a conference that brings together some of the brightest minds in emerging technology. After attending, numerous panels and a keynote speech, it is clear that the tech community is concerned about privacy. We often hear that “privacy is dead,” but not at SXSWi.

We have become increasingly more open about what we are willing to share with our friends and the world. Through social networks like Twitter and Facebook we may share what we’re reading or where we had breakfast, but do we know what is, and what is not made public? During her opening remarks, Microsoft social media researcher danah boyd said “privacy is about control.” In practice, taking control of your privacy on social networks isn’t easy.

As an example, boyd cited Facebook’s December 2009 privacy policy fiasco. Responding to its growth and users’ requests, Facebook introduced a number of changes to how information was shared through its network. Users were provided with the option of making their information more private, accepting Facebook’s default recommendations or customizing thier security settings. Many users, boyd said, accepted the default. In the process, they made some of their information more public.

“Just because something is publicly accessible does not mean people want it to be publicized.” — danah boyd

As the third most visited site on the web, Facebook has a user base that no longer consists only of Internet-savvy college students. With varying levels of experience using social networks, it’s easy to see how many could be confused by Facebook’s recommended privacy settings—does everyone mean “everyone in my network of friends,” or “everyone with an Internet connection?” boyd’s point: Companies should not expose their users to something they may not fully understand assuming that they will learn and adapt their behavior.

Facebook made changes to give users more control over who sees each piece of information in their profile—a valuable feature. As a traditionally closed network, however, the changes the company made opened up the network and provoked a backlash.

As companies work to understand customers better, they need to make a better effort to build trust and transparency. Facebook introduced a feature that creates value for users, but they botched the implementation. Had Facebook used an “opt-in” vs. “opt-out” approach, the company might have avoided an ugly public relations mess.

When it comes to privacy issues, taking the safe route and protecting users should be the default.

Elizabeth Winkler is a social media junkie and Research Associate at the Center for Research in Electronic Commerce at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. You can follow her on Twitter @lizwinks.

2 Comments On: Default on Privacy

  • Toure | July 14, 2010

    You’re going to need a new category to cover Facebook’s recent attempts to
    go from passively exploiting all of its users, to actively criminalizing those who wish
    to escape:

    Facebook Tries to Make Violations of Terms of Use Into Criminal Violations http://www.eff.org/press/archives/2010/05/03

  • Angela | June 17, 2011

    Facebook privacy settings can be very confusing and we had a Court Jury Member jailed here in UK this week for posting content on her facebook. Clearly she needed to look more closely at her settings ! @Toure – that’s a fascinating link. many thanks

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