Who Said Facebook Owes You Privacy?

I have a love-hate relationship with Facebook. I quit about a year and a half ago and wrote a column about it. But a year later—six months ago—I was sucked back in. And I wrote a column about that, too.

A lot changed in my year away. For one, the site is even more annoying, with those pesky Farm Town and Social City games that are constantly flowing through my News Feed. And today someone sent me unbidden something called a “Huggy Wuggie.” I’m hoping I can clear that up with some antibiotics. On the good side, I also noticed a lot more of my relatives had signed on in my year off, as well as friends from rural Virginia where I grew up. It’s good to be in touch with those folks again.

But lately the news about Facebook hasn’t been so good. Who knew I was ahead of the trend when I dropped out for a year? Now it seems that quitting—or at least talking about quitting—is all the rage, mainly because it’s become increasingly impossible to decipher Facebook’s layer upon layer of privacy settings, and many users are outraged that the company might be sharing their private information. Like Captain Renault in Casablanca, these people are “shocked, shocked” to learn that they don’t have complete privacy on Facebook.

Am I the only one who sees the irony in quitting Facebook—a site that’s designed to display every single facet of your daily life down to when you brushed your teeth—because you feel your privacy is being violated? You signed up for it. It’s a free service and you volunteered to use it. You can always sign off. And, yes, if Facebook guarantees one level of privacy and doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain, the company should be held accountable. By which I mean it could potentially pay a price if enough people get outraged and someone invents a new, improved Facebook that does a better job guaranteeing privacy. But I wouldn’t hold your breath. There are now more than 500 million people on Facebook, up by more than 100 million in roughly eight months. The site’s traffic increased by almost 5 percent last week alone.

Facebook did announce this week, after much public outcry, that it had simplified the site’s labyrinthine privacy settings and would make it easier for users to reduce the amount of information that is potentially public. They’ve also added a simple option for those who want to opt out of sharing with all third-party Web sites and applications. These changes will beat back some of the complaints that have been raining down on the company. For now.

Still, the best way to control your privacy online is not to depend on Facebook for protection. Instead, you should assume every e-mail and every post—like, say, if you happened once totally by mistake to have said you loved the song “Baby I’m-a Want You”  by Bread—could someday become public, either by accident or through a change in the social networking site’s policies.

That’s easier said than done, because Facebook—even though it’s only six years old—is practically a utility to some people. It’s so ubiquitous now it seems as familiar as turning on the lights or getting a glass of water from the sink, but those choices don’t have the potential of costing you a job or relationship later on down the line. Partly it’s because Facebook and other similar social-networking sites have completely altered the way people—younger people in particular, who don’t know a world without it—think about privacy. To them, Facebook’s lure and value is as a tool to control or at least try to craft their image, and that’s what drives them back again and again. They are not after privacy. They are after the opposite: popularity. Notice. Fame. Affirmation. They are building the brand of Me.

What they don’t understand is that all publicity really isn’t good publicity—that Me can change, but the residue of your life on the Internet never goes away. I know from experience that many young people don’t worry that much about what they post online. But they should. One of my jobs here at Newsweek is to oversee and hire our Washington-bureau interns, and there have been a few who have lost the opportunity because of wildly inappropriate online postings or photos that I found in 30 seconds of Googling.

Whether you like it or not, you’re slowly building your biography—warts and all—every day you’re online. And to think there are no consequences from that is like that old saw about killing your parents and then throwing yourself on the mercy of the court because you’re an orphan. If you’re embarrassed one day in the near future and lose a job because you posted a pants-free photo of yourself on spring break, that won’t be the fault of Facebook’s privacy policies. It’ll be yours.

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