But here’s what makes the least sense — if there were privacy problems about Facebook information in Google Social Circle (which has now been transformed into a different product called Social Search), they may well have been a result of Facebook’s own practices.
Facebook was griping that Google is getting information about its users without permission. But some information that users share with Facebook is available publicly, even to people who aren’t their friends in in their social networks – or even are members of Facebook. It’s not because outsiders raided the service and exposed that information. It’s because Facebook chose to expose it.
Facebook used to have an implicit promise with its users. Basically the deal was what goes on Facebook stays on Facebook. But over the past couple of years Facebook has chosen to alter the deal. Certain profile information became available outside of Facebook, easily searchable via Google and other means. (Users can opt out of showing this but relatively few do.) Some of that profile information includes a few of the people on the user’s friend list. By repeatedly pinging public profiles, it’s possible for Google or anyone else to figure out pretty much all your friends.
When Google launched Social Search, it also said specifically that it was not going to learn about Facebook connections by mining the Web as described above. Just how Google does get Facebook information is complicated, but as Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land concluded after an extensive look, much of it seems to be by permission. Things should be more clear when Google prepares a more detailed briefing on this, which I assume it is preparing at this moment. Or maybe Facebook will directly spell out its charges now that it’s been outed.
But even if Google did scrape information from the public web, would that be so bad? You can argue whether or not Google would be crossing a privacy line by doing this. (And, remember, Google says it is not mining that public information.) But it’s an argument with a pro and con. What you cannot argue is that is not Google but Facebook that puts some Facebook information into the open Web.
That is why Facebook’s campaign is so weird. If outsiders are going to examine how third-party companies get information about Facebook’s users, you can’t help but question why some Facebook information, by default, shows up on the open web.
Also, consider this excerpt from the letter Burson’s operative named John Mercurio wrote to gin up an attack without Facebook’s fingerprints on it. “Google’s latest plan,” he wrote, “totally disregards the intimate and potentially damaging details that could be revealed, including sexual orientation, political affiliation, personal connections, etc…” This is ironic since, in my experience, Facebook user profiles with such information are much easier to view that they were in the early days of the service. Unless people actively take steps to opt out, it’s possible for “friends of friends” (i.e., strangers) to view someone’s personal information on Facebook.
And it was also remarkable that the Burson operative wailed about the privacy implications of letting millions of people examine a Facebook user’s friend list. In my experience the vast majority of Facebook users do not take the steps to hide their connections, a list which is open by default to half a billion Facebook users.
Any responsible journalistic (or congressional) examination of the Burson charges would wind up asking questions about these Facebook privacy issues.
Given this, I conclude that Facebook was running a smear campaign against itself[.]
[N]ow here comes Facebook, doing one of the dumbest things imaginable. It tried to beam attention on a privacy problem of a rival, but exposed itself as a sneaky maligner. Furthermore, the sorts of privacy fears Facebook evokes are exactly the sort that makes people worried about Facebook.