Facebook wants to control the Web, like it or not

Facebook wants to dictate how you log in and share content across the Web. Should you let it? Cringely says nyet

Mark Zuckerberg may look and sound like the irritatingly self-satisfied rich kid you always hated in high school, but I’ll say this for him: He’s got cojones the size of tractor tires.

Facebook just made a play to take over the entire Web -- or at least, the parts that get the most traffic -- via its new "social graph,” officially unveiled at this week’s F8 confab.

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Some of the changes are cosmetic. Instead of declaring yourself “a fan” of, say, Red Bull or the Talking Heads or "I don’t care how comfortable Crocs are, you look like a dumbass" on Facebook, you now simply Like them. The bigger change is that Facebook has now dismantled its garden walls and extended Like across the Web. Now you can express your Likes across a wide range of sites and have that information auto-magically transferred to your Facebook page, as well as the pages of everyone on your friends list.

You can also see who else on your Facebook list shares your deep abiding affection for the Bay City Rollers or Hello Kitty boxer shorts -- on the page itself.

In addition, Facebook has decided to generously share your personal information with “select” business partners. Right now that includes just three: Pandora, Yelp, and Microsoft’s Docs.com. This is what Facebook is calling "instant personalization" -- grabbing information from your public Facebook page and using it to "improve" your experience on other sites.

If you’re not expecting this, it can be a bit jarring, as IT World’s Thank You for Not Sharing blogger Dan Tynan explains:

I couldn't sleep this morning, so I schlepped down to the nearest Wifi cafe… plugged in my noise-canceling ear phones and dialed up Pandora. Before I'd even logged in, the site launched into one of my favorite Tom Waits songs, "Jockey Full of Bourbon," followed by songs from John Lee Hooker and Tift Merritt. Bang bang bang, three of my top artists, just like that.

Coincidence? Nope. Pandora pulled my musical preferences from my public Facebook profile. I didn't ask it to. It just did. It was both cool and just the tiniest bit creepy.

This must be what Facebook was talking about when it unveiled proposed changes to its privacy policy last month. To wit:

In the proposed privacy policy, we've also explained the possibility of working with some partner websites that we pre-approve to offer a more personalized experience at the moment you visit the site. In such instances, we would only introduce this feature with a small, select group of partners and we would also offer new controls.

At the time, they were just “discussing” implementing these changes. Guess we’re done talking about it.

As usual with Facebook, you’re already entered into their nefarious scheme by default, though you can opt out. But it’s not exactly a cakewalk. PC World’s JR Raphael details the multistep tango for turning off auto-sharing and disentangling your data from third-party sites.

Zuckerberg talks about the convenience of the Social Graph, and he’s right -- it is more convenient when Pandora knows more about my musical preferences. (Of course, considering a premium Pandora account costs $36 a year, it should already know plenty.) It’s more convenient to simply click a button on a site I’ve just discovered and populate yet another Web profile with information I’ve already entered into Facebook. It’s more convenient to see which friends share my perverse interests without having to scroll through their Facebook profiles.

But the social graph isn’t about convenience -- it’s about control. Facebook wants to own single-sign-on and authentication, just as Apple wants to own what apps you can install on your Wonder Tablet, and Amazon wants to control how you manage e-books on your Kindle -- only Facebooks wants to do it across the entire Web.

Factory City blogger Chris Messina writes:

When all likes lead to Facebook, and liking requires a Facebook account, and Facebook gets to hoard all of the metadata and likes around the interactions between people and content, it depletes the ecosystem of potential and chaos — those attributes which make the technology industry so interesting and competitive. …  it’s dishonest to think that the Facebook Open Graph Protocol benefits anyone more than Facebook — as it exists in its current incarnation, with Facebook accounts as the only valid participants.

As I and others have said before, your identity is too important to be owned by any one company.

Similarly, Facebook isn’t collecting and cataloging your consumer preferences out of the good of its heart. Clearly it’s planning to deliver targeted advertising based on my Likes; before long, my browser will be chock-full of ads for Bay City Roller reunion tours and Hello Kitty undergarments. The question is, what else will this information be used for, and by whom? Even if today Facebook aggregates and anonymizes this information, there’s no guarantee they won’t change their minds tomorrow and build nifty little profiles of all Facebook users, down to their favorite breakfast cereals and the deodorant they use.

Each of the 2,583 changes the site has made to its privacy policies since Zucky stole the idea for was divinely inspired to create Facebook has had the net effect of removing more privacy for its users. He’s already declared that sharing trumps privacy. There’s no reason to expect any of that to change -- Like it or not.

Do you “like” Facebook’s new social sharing scheme? Spout off in the comments below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This story, "Facebook wants to control the Web, Like it or not," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog.

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