Facebook’s ‘Open Graph’ Needs New Approaches to Privacy

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I touched on the privacy implications of Facebook’s new Open Graph share-everything-forever platform in my latest Technologizer column over at—but I didn’t dwell on them. For one thing, neither feature is fully available yet, making it hard to judge them. For another, use of Facebook in general and the Open Graph in particular are both optional. Using them and then squawking that they’re violating your privacy is a little like going to Disneyland and griping about excessive Mickey Mouse-related imagery.

Still, if the Open Graph catches on—and I suspect that it will—it’ll change Facebook, and should change how people use Facebook. The social network is already connected to millions of sites and services, but information only flows into it when you tell it to do so, such as by clicking a Like button. With the Open Graph, you’ll give a site one-time permission to share everything with Facebook indefinitely.

(MORE: Did Facebook Just Change Social Networking Forever?)

For better or worse, your Facebook Timeline aims to be a far more detailed log of your life online than its predecessor, the Profile, ever was. And the longer you use it, the higher the chances that you might absently-mindedly disclose something on Facebook that you don’t want people to know about.

A few thoughts on what needs to happen for Open Graph apps to be cool and welcome, not creepy and/or annoying:

You should keep tabs on your own Timeline. In the pre-Open Graph era, there wasn’t all that much reason to read your own Profile: You already knew what you’d put there, and Facebook alerted you when your pals commented on your updates. With Open Graph, apps will push stuff on your behalf in far greater quantities, and it’ll make sense to monitor them.

You should be fussier about giving permission. How many apps currently have permission to post to my Facebook profile? I would have guessed 20 or 25. But I just checked, and there are 166 of ’em. That’s not a huge issue, because they wont touch my Profile unless I tell them to do so. But with Open Graph, if you allow 166 apps to have access to your Timeline, you may end up with 166 apps spamming it nonstop. Being picky is going to make sense.

Facebook should make it easier to change apps’ permissions, or delete them altogether. The problem with Facebook privacy isn’t that you get too little ability to call the shots. Actually, the service gives you finely-grained control over it—so much so that it can be kind of daunting. And it’s all in a page of settings that most of us don’t visit all that often. I’d like to see Facebook make it easier to find and use privacy settings. What if every item pushed onto your Timeline had a “Change Privacy Settings” link?

There should be an Open Graph pause button. I’d like to see an option—in the Timeline itself, not buried in settings—that lets you temporarily block all Open Graph apps. Think of it as Facebook’s answer to the private-browsing features that are now standard in all Web browsers.

Apps should have pause buttons, too. Spotify has already figured this out: It’s added a Private Listening mode.

There need to be easy ways for friends to ignore Open Graph updates. Ninety-nine percent of my friends have music tastes that are radically different from mine, making Spotify updates largely useless, if not irritating. If I could easily turn them off, I would. (For one thing, it would make it easy to see the updates I do care about.)

I’m not a privacy alarmist, and I remain cautiously optimistic that Facebook will make all this work well over time. But I don’t think any of us—up to and including Mark Zuckerberg himself—completely understand the implications of the new features just yet. We won’t until hundreds of millions of people are using them. And I hope that everyone involved moves quickly to make them make sense.

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