Who's Watching?: Some Thoughts on Facebook, Privacy, and Responsibility

Last week, the social networking site Facebook held its annual developers conference and announced several ways in which the company planned to expand its reach, including a "Like" button for the entire web. Much of the press surrounding the event has echoed the question "Is Facebook taking over the Internet?" Indeed, Facebook accounts for about 7% of all web traffic (neck-and-neck with Google's search engine, which also accounts for about 7% of all traffic).*

But some people -- both social media critics and fans -- have long expressed concern about Facebook's privacy policies, particularly since a move in December 2009 to make much of a user's profile information default to "public" not "private." As Facebook continues to grow, both users and pundits remain cautious about the implications of one company having so much access to our personal information.

Internet users have long been encouraged to be "smart" and "safe" online. Be careful what you click on. Be wary of what personal data you reveal. But despite being trained to avoid phishing scams and identity theft, we often readily share some of our most private data with Facebook, confident perhaps that we are only telling "friends."

As more and more users flock to Facebook and as Facebook gathers and shares this information via what they call the "open graph," the vast amount of data that Facebook stores will be incredibly appealing for businesses to access and utilize. Using information gathered from Facebook "likes" and Facebook profile information, businesses will be able to personalize and pinpoint their marketing efforts with increased specificity and sophistication.

But what obligation, if any, do businesses have to use this information "responsibly" -- and what exactly does that "responsibility" entail in this ever-changing, ever-sharing world?

How can consumers and businesses protect themselves in a world that increasingly encourages us to share -- share our preferences for food and music, share our thoughts on politics and television, share our religious sentiments and our purchase history -- and share that information via one company, namely Facebook? I write this, I should say, as a huge Facebook fan. I've reconnected with long-lost friends through Facebook, and I stay in touch with distant friends and relatives that way. But still, I worry. I worry about my privacy. I worry about how my teenage son uses this and other social networking sites.

What are the implications for users, for businesses, and for society as-a-whole as our expectations as to what we should share and who we should share it with -- our expectations about privacy -- change?

* Source: CNN Money "Facebook traffic tops Google for the week" March 16, 2010.