Privacy or Positioning?

I’ve been waiting for it, and this week it happened. Facebook pushed me through its new privacy settings wizard.  The experience was great, it was easy to use and it educated me well on the new functionality available to me and how to use it.  Just when I was enjoying the experience it dropped me into the New vs. Old settings view allowing me to choose whether to use the recommended new settings or my old settings for each category of my Facebook data. 

There were two things that surprised me: first, that the display didn’t show you by default what the settings were. For that, you had to mouse over each one. And secondly, that when doing so I found that—without exception all of the recommended settings were more public than my previous ones.  Needless to say I stuck with my old settings and that was that – however I expect many people would click through that whole process blissfully unaware of the significance of the changes being made.

And that is at the heart of the privacy issue in my mind – empowering consumers to control their personal data.

The past few days have been full of articles debating Facebook’s changes, but Facebook isn’t alone.  There is a big push in the industry to allowing more user control of personal data as evidenced by the launch of Google Dashboard at the beginning of November and Yahoo Ad Interest Manager last week, and it is no coincidence at all that the FTC held the first meeting in its round table series, “exploring privacy”.

There is clearly a significant and positive push in the industry towards putting the user in control of profiles about them that are aggregated and acted upon for the purposes of advertising, and in the case of the big “sign-in” portals the good news is that opt-ins and opt-outs can be persisted beyond the life of a single cookie – an issue raised in my last post.

Facebook’s changes this week get to one of the biggest challenges in this debate – is there value in user privacy control if the default settings don’t implement that control?  Google’s dashboard is another good example – while you can remove items of your search history, you don’t get to see the “insight” that Google has derived from that history, which of course is where the true value is!

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