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They know where you are! (Because you told them…)

FaceBook already knows what you do, who your partner is, who your friends are, and what you think, just because they asked you.  It has such byzantine privacy settings, and makes actually leaving and wiping your data such an unnecessarily complicated process, that web forums are full of people trying to get away from FaceBook and finding it extremely difficult.  And now FaceBook wants you to tell it where you are with the arrival of FaceBook Places.  Why on Earth would you want to tell them?

As an industry insider, Richard Evans, editor of Yahoo! knows what he’s talking about.  He may not exactly be an impartial observer, but even if it does have a whiff of pots and kettles, his comment piece on this is an interesting read.

As he says, “Big companies are preying upon this new culture of social sharing and openness, which in reality is just another vehicle for them to peddle their latest products.”  Yahoo! are hardly strangers to the culture of social sharing and openness of course, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.  He points out that FaceBook Places functionality is limited for users under 18, but young adults could be particularly vulnerable if they broadcast their location to hundreds of online “friends” many of whom they may barely know.  And anyway, do all under-18s enter their real date of birth when they go online?

There’s no point in bemoaning the loss of privacy that modern social networking sites provide, and even less in suggesting that they somehow prevent real person-to person interactions.  Social networking is clearly here to stay and has vast potential implications for the way we communicate.  But there appears to be very little control over what can be shared and how it can be used.  It is not enough to argue that nobody is obliged to divulge personal information; FaceBook encourages users to do so and does not make it completely clear how the information will be stored and used.  FaceBook – and other service providers like Yahoo! – have a responsibility to their users’ privacy and safety, particularly given the ubiquity of social networking among young people.  It would be good to see them taking it more seriously.

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