The privacy gods must be crazy

Thanks to two separate government moves, Facebook may become more private; Twitter, much less so

The privacy gods giveth, and the privacy gods taketh away.

On the giveth side, Facebook is about to reach an agreement with the Federal Trade Commission about what it will and won't do with user data, reports the Wall Street Journal:

According to people familiar with the talks, the settlement would require Facebook to obtain users' consent before making "material retroactive changes" to its privacy policies. That means that Facebook must get consent to share data in a way that is different from how the user originally agreed the data could be used.

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In other words, Facebook would no longer be able to engage in the same privacy bait-and-switch it pulled in December 2009, when it unilaterally declared certain basic user info (names, photos, location, friends lists) would be public, regardless of what people said in their privacy settings. Next time out, Facebook would required to obtain the permission of its 800 million friends before changing the rules about what data it shared and with whom.

(Personal aside to Cringester D. S.: Did I use "whom" correctly that time?)

Facebook may also agree to have its privacy practices monitored for the next 20 years. This may be similar to monitoring arrangements agreed to by Twitter and Google.

Is this a new day for privacy on the InterWebs? Maybe. Best-case scenario is that, if true, this agreement will establish a precedent for how other Web companies must act; if they collect data under a certain set of rules, they cannot apply new rules to that same data later. That's a good thing.

On the other hand, privacy fundamentalists like the Center for Digital Democracy's Jeff Chester say it's just more of the same old same old:

We have to read the fine print, but the fact is that business realities are going to shape Facebook's data collection practices -- not regulation.... Does the consent decree provide new rights for users on Facebook to control their data, or is a digital bump on the road that will do nothing to deter the social network's voracious appetite for consumer information?

Now for the privacy bad news: A federal judge has ruled that information Twitter users "voluntarily" provided to the service -- like their IP and email addresses -- can be accessed by authorities without a search warrant.

The U.S. Justice Department has sought information about three Twitter users related to WikiLeaks. Twitter, God love em, fought back, saying that information is and should be private. The judge disagreed.

I'm not sure the word "voluntary" really applies here. (By visiting this website, you just "volunteered" your IP address to InfoWorld.) It sounds like the reasoning of yet another federal official who thinks the Internet is a series of tubes. But the implications of this could be ugly indeed.

According to Icelandic Parliamentarian Birgitta Jonsdottir, one of the WikiLeaks Three, "the court is telling all users of online tools hosted in the U.S. that the U.S. government will have secret access to their data."

WikiLeaks attorney Mark Stephens says this could mean that Uncle Sam could legally request data not just on these three Twitter users, but all 1.2 million who currently follow the @WikiLeaks Twitter account (of which I am one).

I doubt my Uncle really cares all that much about my IP address, or that He'd confuse me with a die-hard WikiLeaks supporter (at least, not after reading this). Just the same, though, signing up for a website is not the same as giving my snoopy Uncle license to paw through my personal data -- nor should it be.

Can the FTC force Facebook to respect your privacy? Should our IP addresses be public property? Make your voice heard below or email me:

This article, "The privacy gods must be crazy," was originally published at Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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