Don Facebook: Don't Ever Leave the Family

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal's Chin Music (13-Feb-2008)

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It's like joining a crime family: Once you're in the family, you're in for life. And when you try to leave, you're never truly free.

A recent New York Times article illustrates just how difficult it is to permanently leave the Facebook "family." Even though Facebook users have the ability to deactivate their account, their personal information is still archived on Facebook servers.

According to the article, many users had to go through great pains in order to permanently remove their accounts from the network. Some users spent weeks or even months e-mailing Facebook's customer service reps and complaining that they wanted their profile removed—to no avail. One user, after two months of e-mail exchanges that got him nowhere, threatened legal action and finally had his account deleted. Or was it? A reporter was able to contact him via his supposedly deleted Facebook account.

Every time you think you're out, they pull you back in!

It's unfortunate that a lot of Web users sign up for things on a whim or "just for the heck of it" only to find out later how truly difficult it is to completely undo a split second impulse. They don't realize that they're leaving a permanent footprint whenever they create a personal profile on a social networking site, post a message on a discussion forum, or send an e-mail message. They're under the mistaken impression that communicating on the Internet is the same as communicating on the telephone, that nothing but a memory will remain once the conversation is over and the receiver is put down. The reality is that once you hit the Enter key those bits and bytes will be etched somewhere for an indeterminate amount of time—whether you like it or not.

Social networking sites like Facebook come up with their own rationale for maintaining archives of users' personal information. According to its help pages, Facebook justifies these archives by stating, "we do save your profile information (friends, photos, interests, etc.), so if you want to reactivate at some point, your account will look just the way it did when you deactivated. Many users deactivate their accounts for temporary reasons and expect their information to be there when they return to the service."

If you really do want to permanently delete your account, you have to go through a cumbersome manual process of deleting the contents of your account one piece at a time, and then contacting Facebook customer service. Instead of providing a simple "delete forever" button, it seems Facebook has purposely made it difficult for anyone to leave the family. Perhaps it's hoping that the long-drawn-out process will simply discourage users from leaving. And, to add insult to injury, Facebook makes it sound as though it's doing everyone a favor. No thanks, Facebook, we can take care of our own digital fate.

I've always been a very strong advocate of personal privacy. You shouldn't, and can't, trust social networking sites to do what's in your best interest. If you don't want personal information displayed for the world to see, don't post it. Just because a message is directed to one particular person or group of people doesn't necessarily mean they're the only ones who will have access to it. If you're having a one-on-one conversation with someone on the street, out in the open, there's always the possibility someone's eavesdropping—or worse, recording it and sharing it with another party.

Too many users believe that there's such a thing as "reasonable expectation of privacy" on the Internet. They believe that their information will be safe from misuse because it's protected by a user name and password or because it's only shared with people on their friends list. But who's to say the owners of the site will treat that information with the discretion users expect?

The onus is on you to protect your own privacy. Exercise some common sense and understand that anything that can be viewed by one person can potentially be viewed by all. Although many social networking sites give you the appearance of control, once you create a profile and start posting content, you're no longer in control of that information, where it goes, and how long it's stored.

But, the way I see it, social networking sites can't be blamed for archiving your personal information anymore than a robber can be blamed for stealing your belongings when you leave your front door unlocked. Crooks steal because that's what they do; social networking sites harvest information because that's what they do. Both are dealing with commodities, and there's a lot of money to be made. For the former, it's stealing hard goods like cash, jewelry, and electronics. For the latter, it's mining user information and allowing marketers and advertisers access to an incredible pool of valuable demographic information.

Although Facebook is still not offering a quick, one-step account deletion option, it recently made an announcement that it's going to try to make it easier for users to permanently delete their accounts—a PR move reminiscent of that whole Beacon fiasco. The cynic in me, however, suspects Facebook's doing this as a result of negative media publicity rather than user complaints and concerns.

This is probably a pipe dream, but maybe one day social networking sites such as Facebook will start respecting its users' privacy as much as they value marketers' and advertisers' money. Maybe then, all you'll need to do is press a single Delete button and your account will be sleepin' with da fishes.

Copyright © 2008 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this article in whole or part in any form without prior written permission of Paul Chin is prohibited.