SAN FRANCISCO, 24 MAY 2010 - New Yorker Barry Hoggard draws a line in the sand when it comes to online privacy. In May he said farewell to 1251 Facebook friends by deleting his account of four years to protest what he calls the social network's eroding privacy policies.
From Facebook to advertisers who may be putting your online identity up for sale to the highest bidder, and to strangers who could track you across town, new ways of using technology and the Internet are making privacy issues a flash point for controversy.
"Privacy today isn't what it was a year ago," says Jeffrey Chester, director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a nonprofit group that promotes online privacy and free speech. "It wasn't long ago we were worried about advertisers planting cookies on our PC," he says. With today's trends, keeping a handle on your privacy is going to become even harder a year from now, he adds.
What follows are several emerging privacy threats.
Do social networks herald the end of privacy? Lots of former Facebook users who recently ditched their accounts in protest think so. With 450 million users, many say, Facebook is a bellwether for other social networks on user privacy.
One change involved the Instant Personalization pilot program, which let selected Facebook partner Websites access your data and tailor content to your tastes. With Instant Personalization activated, your Facebook information can be accessed the moment you arrive on partner sites including Microsoft's Docs.com, Pandora, and Yelp. When the program launched in April, Facebook automatically activated it for all users. However, a privacy uproar forced the company to revise its policy. Instant Personalization is now optional for users.
Facebook has suffered privacy backlashes before. In 2007 it introduced Beacon, an ad system that tracked certain actions of Facebook users on 44 partner sites so as to report those actions back to users' Facebook friends network. But many users revolted, citing privacy concerns. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg quickly apologized and made Beacon an optional feature.
"Facebook is literally turning down the Facebook privacy settings for its users," says Electronic Privacy Information Center director Marc Rotenberg. In early May, EPIC and 14 other consumer groups filed a complaint against Facebook with the Federal Trade Commission. The complaint accuses the site of following unfair and deceptive business practices, in part, for disclosing previously private details to the public.
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