Facebook Empowers Friends to Prevent Suicide

by Larry Magid

When Anne Collier and I wrote our long out-of-print book,  MySpace Unraveled, we pointed out that MySpace was the largest referrer to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We noted that kids were alive because of the way friends had reached out to save their friends.

Facebook, of course, took MySpace’s place in that regard but now Facebook and the Lifeline have teamed up to make it easier to report friends in distress and for people who are suicidal to have a live chat with a prevention specialist.

In a CBS News CNET podast interview, the Lifeline’s Lidia Bernik told me that “a lot of people would rather communicate via chat or text, as opposed to calling.” To that end, Facebook offers a direct link to a Lifeline page where people can have a live confidential chat with an expert.

In her blog post about the announcement Anne Collier called this the “911 of the social web,” adding that friends can be “first responders.” She said, “Neither a Web site nor a national hotline can immediately or fully be ‘there’  for someone if the people on that person’s friends list – the people he or she interacts with from day to day – aren’t there to notice.”

Important development

To me, this is a natural evolution in the long term relationship between Facebook and the Lifeline and it’s an important development for anyone who understands how important social media has become in so many people’s lives.

The bottom line is that friends need to help friends. And being a friend today means using any means available – including social media — to support each other.

Bernik said that if you see someone who is in distress, the best response is to reach out to that person directly but “if you’re not comfortable doing that,” you can use the Facebook reporting tool to make sure that Facebook reaches out. Facebook will only pass on information to the Lifeline or authorities in the event of a “life threatening emergency.”

The National Suicide Prevent Lifeline can also be reached at 800 273-TALK (8255).

For more, see the guest post of U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin linked from Facebook’s safety page.

Disclosure: Larry Magid is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, a non-profit Internet safety organization that receives financial support from Facebook. ConnectSafely also serves on Facebook’s Safety Advisory Board and helped organize a meeting last year between Facebook officials and suicide prevention specialists, including Lifeline staff.

This post also appears on Forbes.com.

How to hide your Facebook friends list

by Larry Magid

Facebook last Wednesday announced new privacy settings that give users some additional control over what information they share, while taking away the ability to hide a few pieces of information from the general public.

One particular piece of publicly available information–users’ friends lists–caused a bit of an uproar from a number of sectors, including business people who don’t necessarily want to expose their professional networks to the public and their competitors. It is also a concern to some parents who might not want their kids–or a list of their kids’ friends–to be widely available.

Facebook quickly backtracked. A day later, the company announced on its blog that users can now uncheck the “Show my friends on my profile” option in the Friends box on their profile so that your friend list won’t appear on your publicly viewable profile.

Unfortunately, they weren’t very clear on exactly how you make the change. You won’t find this checkbox in your Facebook privacy settings. Instead you have to follow these steps:

1. Click on Profile on the blue bar a the top of the screen:

2. Scroll down to the beginning of your Friends list and click on the pencil to the right of the word Friends:

3. Uncheck the box that says “Show Friend list to everyone”:

You can’t hide your friends from your friends and applications
Unchecking that box will hide your friends list when a non-Facebook friend views your public profile, but it will not hide your Facebook friends list from your friends when they look at your profile. Also, this information will be available to applications and application developers.

In addition, this procedure does not hide other publicly available information including your name, profile picture, gender, current city, networks you belong to, and pages you’re a fan of.

Double-check your privacy settings
Most Facebook users have by now gone through the mandatory privacy settings wizard, but you can revisit your settings at any time by hovering over settings in the tool bar on the top of the screen and selecting privacy settings. If you don’t do this, a fair amount of your information might be available to the public including the names of your kids and other family members (with links to their Facebook accounts), your relationship status, and where you work.

To find out how your Facebook profile looks to the public, click on Profile Information in privacy settings and then on Preview My Profile…on the upper right section of that page.

This article first appeard on CNET News.com

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.

Facebook details new privacy settings

Facebook users are about to see an unfamiliar screen when they sign on to the service–a request to configure their privacy preferences. But it’s not really a request. It’s a requirement.

“As far as we know, it’s the first time in the history of the Internet,” said Facebook spokesman Simon Axten, “that so many people have been required to make affirmative decisions about their privacy.”

The company on Wednesday provided details of the changes that CEO Mark Zuckerberg blogged about last week. These include eliminating regional networks and giving users more granular control over who can see individual pieces of content while making some basic profile information available to everyone. Also, Facebook is simplifying what this blogger and others have criticized as overly complex privacy controls, but it is also requiring members to make some information available to the public.

All Facebook users will be asked to configure privacy settings
(Credit: Facebook)

Controversial privacy history
Over the years, Facebook has been the subject of criticism, lawsuits, and threatened federal action over various changes to its privacy policy.

In 2007, Facebook announced its Beacon advertising service, which broadcast member activity on partner sites to their Facebook friends. If you bought a movie ticket on Fandango, for example, all of your Facebook friends would immediately know about it. The Beacon program unleashed a campaign from consumer advocacy groups including MoveOn.org as well as a class action law suit that was settled this September. As part of that settlement, Facebook agreed to shut down Beacon and to donate $9.5 million to an independent foundation to “fund projects and initiatives that promote the cause of online privacy, safety, and security.”

In February of this year, Facebook found itself at the center of another privacy storm after it announced a change in its policy that would give the company seemingly perpetual control over user-supplied content. That prompted the Electronic Privacy Information Center to threaten filing a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission and also led to the formation of a Facebook group called People Against the new Terms of Service that attracted nearly 150,000 members protesting the changes. The uproar caused the company to rescind those changes and resulted in CEO Mark Zuckerberg holding a press conference where he announced that the company would create “a new approach to site governance” so that its decisionmaking would be more transparent.

Mandatory privacy settings
All users will soon be confronted with a “privacy announcement” informing them that they must configure their settings. Initially, you will be able to “skip for now” but you will later be required to go through the steps in order to continue using the service, according to Axten.

To encourage people to share information, Facebook has set the default to “everyone,” but you can later go back to set more restrictive settings. You can also keep your old settings. If you’re not sure what they are, you can display them by hovering over the radio button.

New Facebook privacy setting page
(Credit: Facebook)

In the final step, Facebook displays your settings and gives you a chance to change them. At this point or at any time in the future you will be able to adjust any of your settings

Final stage verifies new settings.
(Credit: Facebook)

The Facebook settings will be based on four basic levels: friends, friends of friends, everyone, and customize. If you belong to a network, you will also have the setting friends and networks. As before, you will also be able to customize settings to include or exclude specific friends or groups of friends.

Some information must be publicly available
Some information–including name, profile picture, gender, current city, networks you belong to, friend lists, and pages you’re a fan of–will be available to everyone. The only way to keep that information from the general public is to not include it as part of your Facebook profile. Users also have the ability to limit what can be found via a search on Facebook and what information Facebook will make available to search engines like Google and Bing.

According to Axten, that information is being made publicly available to make it easier to find people using Facebook search, especially people with common names. If you locate a “John Smith” in a Facebook search, seeing his picture and knowing where he lives can make it easier to pinpoint the right person. Though not mandatory, Facebook, according to a spokesperson, is encouraging people to make other information public such as where they went to school or where they work. However Axten added that if a user had previously configured their privacy settings, they should keep what they already have.

While adults have the option of making content available to everyone, the maximum exposure available to users under 18 will be friends of friends or school networks.

Control over who gets to see your posts
The most important change is that you will now be able to specify who can see each piece of your content including status updates, photos, and videos. Each time you add content, you’ll be able to determine whether it can be seen by everyone, friends and network, friends of friends, only friends, or a custom setting. Customized settings allow you to include or exclude individual people or lists of people. For example, one could share last night’s exploits with his fraternity brothers but not with his fellow church members or office mates. The list feature, which has long been available, allows you to divide your friends into groups. For example, as a journalist, I encourage readers to “friend” me at Facebook.com/larrymagid, but I also maintain a list of “real world friends.”

Third-party application settings
As in the past, you will have some control over the information that can be seen by operators of third-party Facebook applications. Facebook has added the ability to fully block an application from accessing any information but, in most cases, that will disable the application.

Facebook’s Axten said that application developers will have access to all publicly available information, but can only access other information with the user’s permission. Applications are also required to only access user information that is essential for them to run. The company, said Axten, has an enforcement squad to ensure compliance.

Facebook is also launching a new Privacy Center that will offer “a comprehensive guide that helps users understand and control how they share information.”

Disclosure: Facebook is one of several companies that provides support to ConnectSafely.org, a nonprofit Internet safety organization I help run.

This post first appeared on CNET News.com

Avoiding social networking scams

by Larry Magid

This post originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

More and more people are using social networking sites, including, sadly, criminals seeking to take advantage of the rest of us.

Threats on those sites include applications and quizzes, as well as malware, worms and viruses. But the main risk, says Trend Micro’s Rick Ferguson, is information you post yourself that can jeopardize your privacy and your security.

Ferguson says that “we have a tendency on social networks to share more information that we need to.” While you may need to reveal which schools you went to and where you worked to connect with old school mates or colleagues, “you don’t need to share your date of birth, phone number and address,” Ferguson said.

The threats are not limited to Facebook or MySpace. Ferguson also warns users not to be lulled into a false sense of security when using professional networks like LinkedIn. “Because it’s a professional networking site, people give it more credibility and think it’s safer than other networks,” he said, adding that you put yourself at risk by “posting your entire résumé and exposing your business connections.”

Both Ferguson and Symantec safety education director Marian Merritt warn about online quizzes and applications that are popular on social networking sites.

“Every time you accept an application, you’re giving some third-party developer access to information in your profile,” Merritt said.

She warns that “quizzes are sometimes attached to fraudulent marketing companies.” She said her own teenage daughter took an IQ quiz and had to put in her cell phone number to get her score.

“She didn’t notice that the terms of service would sign her up for premium texting until the bill came.” Fortunately, this particular teenage girl has one of the most cyber-security-conscious moms on the planet, who convinced the carrier to stop the charges.

Some quizzes and surveys reveal far too much information. I recently came across a third-party survey that asks users to reveal “60 Things You Didn’t Know About Me” with such questions such as “What are you wearing?” “When was the last time you were drunk?” and “How often do you have sex?” With answers to questions like these on your profile, it doesn’t take a sophisticated hacker to derive information that he shouldn’t have access to.

Some Facebook users don’t seem to be aware of the difference between private messages and wall postings. I have a friend who is posting personal messages to family members’ walls, unaware that those messages are seen by all of the person’s Facebook friends.

Ferguson says to beware of applications that don’t seem to have any purpose other than to spread themselves. Some of these applications automatically send notices to all your friends, telling them that you’re using the applications and encouraging others to install them as well. In addition to spamming your friends, these applications could be gaining access to your profile information and displaying unwanted advertising to all who sign up.

Company spokesperson Simon Axten said Facebook has a team of people and software tools working to enforce rules for application developers. MySpace, according to a spokesperson, also employs a robust security team and tools, including software to block outgoing and incoming spam and warn users about potential phishing sites.

Facebook’s application development process, said Axten, “is relatively open to stimulate innovation and allow people to develop quickly.” But he said developers must agree to a set of rules which, among other things, prohibit them from sending messages on the users’ behalf.

Developers are now required to disclose what information they collect during the installation process, and Axten recommends that users “pay attention to those notices.” He said developers are allowed to collect only the information that they need to run the application, but that can sometimes include profile information and the profiles of your friends.

On all sites, be cautious about clicking on any links, especially those shortened ones that are commonly used on Twitter. If a link is shortened by bit.ly or tinyurl, you have no idea where it will lead you until after you click. Most security suites can warn you before your browser opens potentially dangerous Web sites.

There are other threats, including the Koobface worm, that can steal your password and send spam from your account. Most Internet security programs will protect you against this and other malware.

Users should also be careful about links that appear in posts and messages that could lead to phishing or malware sites. And put on your thinking cap before responding to a friend’s plea for money, even if it comes from your friend’s Facebook account and includes a horrendous story such as being stuck in an overseas jail. Try to reach your friend some other way before responding, because it’s likely a scam.

Disclosure: I am co-director of the nonprofit Internet safety organization, ConnectSafely.org, which receives support from Facebook, MySpace and other social networking companies.

Web 2.0 schools – something more profound is happening

by Nancy Willard

This is my first post at SafeKids.com and it was generated by a question from a reporter: “I am currently working on a story about the explosion of Facebook and other social networking sites and their use by both students and teachers (and what free speech implications that has for teachers), as well as how school districts are reacting to students having smartphones (that can do more than just make calls).”  Here is what I said:

The power of these new social networking technologies is flat out amazing. One only needs to consider the recent events in Iran to be struck with the understanding of how profoundly our society has and will be changed by these technologies. Sure the Church and the Crown were concerned about the invention of the printing press. With good reason. The invention of the printing press led to reformation, the scientific revolution, and democracy.

What these technologies are doing is challenging the hierarchical authoritarian-based structures in our society. We are changing to a network-based, community-based society.

And this brings us to schools. Currently, most schools function as strict hierarchies. But they don’t have to. For decades, astute educational leaders have been arguing that schools would function better as learning communities. Where instead of being the “sage on the stage,” the teacher acts more as the “guide by the side.”  Where learning is relevant – and student directed. Where the focus is on learning how to learn and find information – not regurgitation of facts. Where collaboration is viewed as a desired objective – not cheating.

Innovative schools across this country are shifting to the use of the web 2.0 interactive technologies – as they must. It is impossible to prepare children for their future in classrooms that were designed to serve our past.

Unfortunately, some schools are reacting to all of this by trying to impose greater control. Hierarchical forms of control are doomed to failure. Filtering software was supposed to provide schools with the ability to prevent students from accessing certain sites. Guess what? The same bypassing technologies that allowed the Iranians to bypass their country’s filters are being used by students across this country to bypass the filters that schools are wasting millions of dollars for. Think I am wrong? Google the terms “bypass Internet filter.” Close to 700,000 hits.

The wise educational leaders in our society are providing the insight to shift our schools into this new mode. The school leaders who seek to retain their power, their authority, their control will ultimately fail. Just like the shah of Iran.

There is a growing community of professionals who are seeking to respond to the challenges of the risks that young people do face online – but with an understanding of the source of those risks (the young people at the greatest risk online are the ones who are already at greater risk offline) as well as a profound respect for the incredible benefits to our society presented by these empowerment technologies.

Nancy Willard executive director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, is a recognized authority on issues related to the safe and responsible use of the Internet.

Predator Panic a risky distraction

by Larry Magid

I’ve been an Internet safety advocate since 1993 and right now I’m discouraged and angry about what’s going on in this field.

I’m angry because people who ought to know better are trying to mislead the public with false information about online risks, which is diverting attention away from real risks. And I’m not alone.

Many respected online safety organizations and leading youth-risk researchers are trying to shift the discussion away from mostly predator danger to youth behavior risk. Thanks to some politicians, it’s an uphill battle.

Online safety groups and public officials should be spending our time educating families on how to avoid real risks that affect most kids – like bullying, harassment and unwanted exposure to inappropriate material. We also need to do a better job of identifying and reaching the small minority of “at risk” kids who are putting themselves at greater risk by the way they behave online. Continue reading

Net safety task force says predation risk exagerated

by Larry Magid

A long awaited report from the Internet Safety Technical Task Force concludes that children and teens are less vulnerable to sexual predation than many have feared. The report also questions the efficacy and necessity of some commonly prescribed remedies designed to protect young people.

The task force was formed as a result of a joint agreement between MySpace and 49 state attorneys general. Continue reading

Guest commentary: Don’t stop the dialogue!

By Hemanshu Nigam

It’s New Year’s Eve, and your teen is all decked out and ready for a big party. She’s got her iPhone, BlackBerry, or some other cell phone with a camera in her pocketbook. And she’s ready to roll. You’re glad she’s got these gadgets so you can get in touch with her. You tell her to call to check in, to let you know she got there safely, to ask for permission to stay later. She agrees. You give her a quick hug and run upstairs to get ready for your own party to celebrate the arrival of a new beginning. You even remember to put the new digital camera you got for Christmas by your purse so you don’t forget it. Continue reading