Published in The Tribune on 13th June 2010

Recent attacks on its new policy of relaxing privacy controls for data uploaded by users notwithstanding, Facebook remains a highly popular meeting ground for most of us.

Facebook allows my aunt in the United States to know that my daughter had a mango milk shake earlier in the evening before I get to know this important fact.

By uniting friends from childhood, hitherto lost to the ravages of time, by instantaneously connecting families, friends, acquaintances and colleagues in a location-independent manner, Facebook has indeed changed the way we communicate.

It has also changed the content of that communication. Without Facebook, I may not have chosen to tell my cousin in Pune that I went for a walk and had ‘gol gappas’ on the way, but now he is up to date!

I am also able to wish ‘Many Happy Returns of the day’ to friends whose date of birth would have been an unknown fact to me a few years back.

 Social transformer-

Facebook has become one of the preferred methods of this era for socializing and keeping in touch. Pictures of family outings are posted regularly by members, thus giving their circle of friends the opportunity to be a part of their experience in an unprecedented manner. Even a subordinate at office who is on the friends list gets to have a glimpse of his boss at home, (and thus he learns that the boss loves tennis, for example) which otherwise would have been unthinkable.

Says Sushant Verma a school going Facebook user, ‘I use Facebook not only to connect with friends but also to seek their inputs for doing my homework!’

All types of users-

Indeed, all kinds of people use Facebook. From the bored housewife to the sharp executive, and from children in their ‘tweens’ to senior citizens, the Facebook experience is clearly a draw for all sections of society. One finds that retired persons spend quite a large amount of time on Facebook and clearly feel ‘connected’ through this medium. Youngsters, on the other hand, can be prone to wasting time on Facebook, and risk their parents’ ire!

Adventurous types-

Some Facebook members are happier to upload personal details and photographs than others. Their fan following, as long as it exists, thus laps up whatever is posted by them with a sense of excitement. Such die hard Facebookers are possibly presenting themselves to the risk that their personal data is vulnerable to access by unauthorized persons too.

Privacy issues-

What then are these latest privacy issues which have threatened to rock the Facebook boat?

What’s happened is that Facebook has recently come under attack, not for the first time, from a sizeable number of its members for making access to private information potentially available to advertisers and linked websites. The public stand taken by the Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg that ‘the era of privacy is over’ has not pleased the website’s users.

The problems for users of Facebook arise when they post personal details thinking that these would be accessible only to friends but end up making such data available to all and sundry.

As Manish Dwivedi, the CEO of a technology company based in Delhi puts it ‘Be sure and explore security options before you upload on Facebook, or else risk becoming folk lore!’

Film maker Vipul Shah is even more decisive when asked about the fact that Facebook is not as secure as it should be.

‘I have always believed that and so I am not on Facebook’ he says.

What you need to know-

Facebook users need to know a few things before sharing data on their profile page that they often mistakenly think is accessible only to friends.

  1. Only for friends– It is a good idea to click on ‘Only friends’ as the setting for your profile and all its various features, but this has to be done deliberately and does not happen by default! Visit your ‘privacy settings’ page under the heading ‘accounts’ for this purpose.
  2. Hide from Google-By un-clicking the bullet that reads ‘create a public search listing for me and submit it for search engine indexing’ you can also prevent yourself from showing up along with your picture and those of your friends on Google and other search engines!
  3. Secure your photographs– This can be done by going to the privacy settings page once again and manually configuring the privacy settings for each album or photograph that you upload.
  4. Remove yourself from Facebook search results– This can be done by changing your privacy settings to ensure that you show up only when existing Facebook friends search for you, by selecting ‘Only friends’. Many of us want to be found by long-lost friends though, and do not mind being searched for by one and all!
  5. Don’t press the LIKE button (except that of friends’ postings) – Those who tend to click on the Like button and think that they’re just showing harmless support to a social cause or for some other purpose, should think again.

The latest changes-

Public pressure forced Zuckerberg to come out with a press statement on May 27 and to announce that three new measures would be taken by Facebook to make the lives of users easier.

These include-

  1. A new ‘privacy settings page’ that allows ‘one simple control’ has been announced by Zuckerberg that should see the light of day very shortly.
  2. Personal data would be kept private more easily by allowing members to block the Facebook community’s access to their own and, through them, to their friends’ pages.
  3. Third party privacy is also being made easier by allowing users to control access by other websites and games to their personal details.

 

Sameer Jain, the CEO of an IT company says ‘Facebook’s surprise privacy changes have created yet another backlash, forcing it to climb down once again.’

 Quit Facebook day-

Certain facebookers were so agitated by the announcement recently that privacy would be a thing of the past for them, that they announced that May 31, 2010 would be ‘Quit Facebook Day’! Out of 450 million users of Facebook worldwide, 34,100 might seem a paltry number, but the fact that this many users did actually deactivate their accounts made Facebook think again about its openness policy!

Be wary, but not worried!

As with just about everything else in life, a balanced approach is essential when one uses social networking sites like Facebook. Why upload a picture at all, that might be taken advantage of if it gets into the wrong hands?

On the other hand, most of us are not film stars so there is very little information about us that is classified, anyway!

There is a need to feel reasonably relaxed while using Facebook in order to have the kind of fun that you seek from the popular platform that it is. But there is also the need to visit your ‘privacy settings’ page once in a while to make sure that what should be a harmless activity does not become a painful experience.

It is also a good idea to go through the ‘Controlling how you share’ page on Facebook which gives details of the privacy settings.

Shivneet Singh, Executive Director, TIE Chandigarh, warns that, ‘the age of automatic privacy is over…let the user beware!’

That may be a somewhat exaggerated warning, but being aware and alert as a Facebook user is surely the way to be!

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