At least Facebook’s new privacy settings make you think

Facebook last week launched some privacy settings that give users the option of targeting individual posts to specific people or groups of people. But most significant about the new settings, I think, is that they require every one of Facebook’s 350 million users to run a “transition tool” to review their old settings and decide whether to select new ones.

This isn’t an optional step. Users will be able to “skip for now” the privacy wizard on the first encounter, but they’ll eventually be required to complete it to access their Facebook accounts.

Unless you want to customize the settings, it’s possible to zip through this privacy wizard quickly. But at least it forces you to think about privacy — if only for a minute or two — as a condition of being able to continue to use the service.

As I thought about how to configure my own privacy settings, I realized how little thought I typically give to such questions as who on Facebook gets to see information about my family and relationships, my work and education, and the posts that I create. Going forward, I’m sure I’ll stop thinking about these issues but — for a moment — they were upfront and center.

It reminds me of how many things we do on the Web without really thinking about them. Just about every site we interact with has some type of privacy policy, but how many of us actually read them? I sometimes skim the policy if it’s a site that’s asking for personal information, but skimming — especially for a non-lawyer like me — is far from understanding. And truth be told, there are times when I’ve failed to even click on a site’s privacy policy.The same is true with “terms of service,” or TOS. These terms — which are on Facebook, MySpace and just about any other site where users are allowed to enter information — are actually a contract. Your responsibility is to read them, understand them, and either agree to them or not use the site. But like those long and complicated rental car contracts that very few people read or those signs at parking lots that say “This Sign Constitutes a Contract — Read It,” most of us never do.

Then there are those EULAs, which stands for “End-User License Agreement.” They’re on almost all software packages, some Web sites and some free plug-ins that we download from the Internet.

Several years ago the Web site PCPitStop.com included a clause in one of its own EULAs associated with free software that promised anyone who read it a “consideration,” including money, if they sent a note to an e-mail address listed in the EULA. Over four months, more than 3,000 people downloaded the software, but only one person followed up with an e-mail. That person was rewarded with a check for $1,000.

This experiment was conducted during the height of the spyware epidemic in which businesses were giving away free avatars, emoticons, password trackers and other software in exchange for getting user permission to put all sorts of advertisements in your face. While spyware has diminished, those days are not completely behind us.

I’m not trying to beat up on people for being in a hurry to get that software or log into the cool site, but perhaps we should pay a little more attention to what we’re “signing” with a click of a mouse.

The Facebook solution is far from perfect. It, too, has its default. And if you rush through it, you’ll wind up exposing much of your content to “everyone” rather than the more granular “friends” or “friends of friends.” And some people might not notice that Facebook has changed its privacy policy to make some information public for all its users, including name, profile picture, gender, networks you belong to, friend lists, and pages you affiliate with.

Facebook has a good argument for making this information available — it helps others find you even if you have a common name. But it takes away the user’s option of hiding this information, though you can leave some of these fields blank. Bottom line: Even with Facebook’s more transparent privacy settings and forced transition tool, users are going to have to be alert.

At the end of the day, it’s all about people thinking critically before they click or volunteer information. While I don’t suggest we all go out and hire lawyers to read every EULA and TOS put in front of us, I do think we need to slow down just a bit and put a little more thought into what we’re doing and disclosing online.

Going forward, I hope other sites take their cue from Facebook and work harder to make sure people have to put a bit of thought into their privacy and security, and what they’re giving in exchange for what they’re getting from the site.

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