Be careful what you like on Facebook

By Matt Cornock

This post is about some very public privacy loopholes on Facebook, the knock-on effect for people searching on Google, and the question over accepted norms. There’s a rant, a helpful tip, and then I go all philosophical on you.

Like Facebook?

The BBC’s recent documentary ‘Mark Zuckerberg: Inside Facebook’ really showed how one man’s influence over the way we interact online. Indeed, we could argue that the documentary should really have been called ‘Facebook: Inside Mark Zuckerberg’. I say this because Facebook has a lot of nuances, language, interface elements and even sociology which is alien to those outside of the Facebook culture. Every shift in the user interface deepens its idiosyncracies, and it’s not uncommon to hear Facebook novices needing much pointing in the right direction to get things done. Take making a simple post to your friends: you may to know what a ‘wall’ is, what a ‘status’ update is, how that fits into ‘news feeds’, what are ‘highlighted stories’, what the ‘audience selector’ does… etc etc. It is no wonder then that privacy itself is shrouded in mystery. I have already commented on the language used in the privacy settings page, however what is less obvious is that these settings don’t address all the problems users may face. 

A few issues

Let’s take a look at three examples where the intricacies of Facebook may be misunderstood:

  • Liking a company’s page entitles them to use ‘Sponsored Stories’ (adverts) where your name and profile photo will appear to friends. For example: I like my employer’s page. On my friend’s Facebook if my employer is advertising to the same demographic as my friend, they could choose to use a sponsored story where the system tries to find friend matches, and hence post “Matt Cornock likes XYZ” within an advert on the right. In effect, my ‘like’ can be used as an ongoing endorsement of the advertised product or company. There is no way for people to opt out of this, aside from not liking anything. The issue here is that the interpretation of ‘like’ by users is different from the action interpretted by Facebook.
  • Groups are now searchable by Google. If you were on Facebook in the old days of the ‘walled garden’, where in order to access ANYTHING on Facebook you had to log in, you may have joined some groups which were ‘open’ (but because of the ‘walled garden’ only open to Facebook users). All these groups are now publically available to anyone in the world to see and for Google to index. What’s worse is that if you left these groups but left posts on the group walls, now your Facebook profile is linked on a public page, indexed by Google, along with your comments in that group. Let’s not forget too that individual users have no record of old groups, so you can’t go back in a logical way to remove all your old posts once you’ve left. I’ll deal with some implications of this in a moment and a solution to this problem.
  • And, because good grumblings come in threes: if you like a page, post on it or were part of an open group, your profile image is then in the public sphere, indexable by Google Image Search by your name. For example, if you have allowed any user to see your profile picture, but using Facebook’s privacy settings not enabled the public search option, you would imagine this is set to ensure your profile escapes Facebook’s search and Google web search. However, your picture can still be grabbed by Google when it indexes public pages and groups. Essentially, again the only way to prevent this is to set your profile picture to only be visible to friends only or to not like anything or join groups. 

These problems are present, but the language and settings available in Facebook don’t make this clear to the user. When you ‘like’ something, you are in Facebook’s eyes offering your public endorsement which may be used by the company for commercial gain. When you post in a non-private group, regardless of the site restrictions when you posted, it’s possible to make this available to the whole world. When you attempt to prevent Google indexing your Facebook profile, you can’t fully do so.

Facebook swamping Google search

From the above you can already see how Google’s indexing of a lot of Facebook pages has a big impact on Google’s ability to find meaningful pages about an individual. Facebook as one of the highest linked and most visited sites on the web has a naturally high Google presence, overshadowing many other, arguably more useful, sources of information about an individual’s online presence. 

I was suprised to find that my old Facebook group memberships – ones from the ‘walled garden’ days of Facebook – suddenly appeared on the first page of search results for “Matt Cornock”. Old, outdated and irrelevant and unlinked web pages were now more significant in Google’s web search than recent webpages with more contextually identical material to other webpages relating to me. Thankfully, these groups were just the ‘Kate Bush Appreciation Society’ and ‘Blackadder for God’. However, if you were party to more radical factions in the old days of Facebook, you may want to take a look at the next section of this post.

For me, Facebook’s attitude of ‘do first, think later’ still doesn’t respect what its users contribute to the online society. If a user posts within a set of norms established, for example by a walled garden, then it is not unreasonable for that user to expect those norms to continue in perpetuity. Or, if not, offer an easy way for users to remove such content. Unfortunately this is in conflict with Facebook ideals of sharing for all.

There’s also the question of why Google is indexing every tiny little bit of Facebook? What possible use can it be? Facebook has its own internal search of group names and users – for users who want to be found – how does Google indexing groups or in particular using the comments/posts on groups pages as part of its mined content. If Google feels it is in the general internet users’ interest to index Facebook web pages, why not index based only on group/page name, rather than indexing the sheer quantities of text contributed to the pages by users (i.e. the comments/posts/links to profiles/etc). Facebook pages have an large amount of text – and hence opportunities for large amounts of keyword hits. However, most of the text does not add to the context of the page (lists of names as a prime example).

This is clearly a case of data mining overload.

Dealing with your past Facebook activities on Google search

If you want to ensure that any posts from old groups you were in are deleted, you can try using Google’s site-based search. This is easily accessible through the advanced search settings or, simply pop into Google web search the following:

  • “Your Name In Quotes” site:facebook.com

Where your name is how it appears on your Facebook profile. This restricts search results to those found on Facebook. If you have a common name… well… oh darn… you are a bit stuck there, mate. The rest of us can then go through, one by one, through Google’s results, open the Facebook group page, delete the post and go on our merry way.

I have submitted ‘feedback’ to Facebook about this issue – if I get any response I will add it to this post. You can spend a few minutes on Facebook’s community forum and get irate at the issues. By the way, to make a complaint – you must go to the help section and use the feedback link at the bottom of the page.

Expected norms

As users we are essential to the value of sites such as Facebook and Google. Yes, new developments may improve the site, entice more users to be present on the site (greater audience and hence more advertising revenue), but yet however important we are to such companies, our power is very limited. Think of normal seats of power: a population of 70 million, a government of 600 people, with a cabinet of 20. However, on social networks, the seats of power are 150 million in number but with isolated implimenters who have no obligation to have channels of communication or enact the wishes of the population. I’m not quite sure if I’m proposing here that Facebook should be governed like a country, with an elected representation and president of the people rather than a president of shareholders? Does a social network, a community, a society, a sociology as Zuckerberg invisions, in essence cry out for the same accountability and governance structures to steer it morally?

Facebook and Google are shaping our expected norms of internet use. Data privacy and, in particular, online presence is exceptionally difficult to control. With one half arguing for sharing for all, and individuals wanting to control what is shared. As these changes about what we are willing to share creep in over time, we slowly accept changes which ten years ago we would be alarmed at. Thinking about personal data – we willingly enter it into social networking sites run by business people, but question when governments want to know more personal details for country security. Does the Facebook movement (as indetectable and woven into our lives as it is) promote a better society of openness, or is it just a case of multi-billion dollar companies exploiting the opportunities offered to them as a result of our info sharing?

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