Yesterday, news broke that Instagram — freshly partnered with the privacy-haters over at Facebook — is trying to make money off of the content we all upload and share with each other for free with the platform they have provided. Terrible! I mean, jokes aside, it is genuinely a little perturbing to think that they can license your pictures at will. At the same time, though, the actual likelihood of that happening is miniscule, and anyway, Facebook already pretty much does the same thing. In fact, remember all those other times we got mad and swore we'd never use any of this stuff again? Well, probably not, since last time I checked we're all still using Facebook every minute of every day. But in case you don't have anything to be anxious and worried about today, let's look back at a few of the bigger incidents that have gotten people mad at Facebook, the company that now owns both Instagram and every personal detail of your life (give or take).
Just a month ago, all of the worst people in your news feed copied and pasted that status update retroactively claiming copyright over all the stupid shit they post too much of anyway, presumably in response to minor proposed regulation updates by a company we all signed our information over to years ago. Snopes pointed out that not only were the supposed policy changes a hoax, but that even if Facebook were seizing sudden ownership of all your work, information, and images, "Facebook users cannot retroactively negate any of the privacy or copyright terms they agreed to when they signed up for their accounts." Our own Henry Stewart pointed out that everyone who bought into it was a dummy, and the whole thing passed largely without incident.
This fall, lots of people got very riled up over claims that thanks to some kind of glitch with Timeline, private messages from any time before 2010 were now publicly viewable as wall posts. Some people are still convinced that this really did happen, but experts and Facebook itself claim that we all just forgot what kind of things we used to make public on the site, before the existence of Timeline, comments on posts, and the ability to "view conversations." In response, Facebook released the following statement:
"A small number of users raised concerns after what they mistakenly believed to be private messages appeared on their Timeline. Our engineers investigated these reports and found that the messages were older wall posts that had always been visible on the users' profile pages. Facebook is satisfied that there has been no breach of user privacy."
Whether or not this all some terrible cover up, it's doubtful anyone bothered to go back to your wall just to see who you were making dinner plans with in 2007. No one is that interested.
Based on years of evidence (including a confusing 2009 change in policy), the Federal Trade Commission filed a lengthy complaint against the company, claiming that they "deceived consumers by telling them they could keep their information on Facebook private, and then repeatedly allowing it to be shared and made public."
As a result, the company will be required to undergo a privacy audit every two years for the next 20 years (something Google and Twitter have also been required to do), and Zuckerberg responded with a blog post explaining himself:
"Overall, I think we have a good history of providing transparency and control over who can see your information. That said, I'm the first to admit that we've made a bunch of mistakes. In particular, I think that a small number of high profile mistakes, like Beacon four years ago and poor execution as we transitioned our privacy model two years ago, have often overshadowed much of the good work we've done."
The FTC chairman seemed satisfied, and said of Zuckerberg, "He admits mistakes. That can only be good for consumers."
Thanks to an investigation by the Wall Street Journal, news got out that third party apps including Farmville and Mafia Wars were being given users' identification numbers (and the ability to track names, online habits, and other personal information), regardless of privacy settings. The data was mainly being used to target ads, but users and privacy advocates alike were pissed. Facebook tepidly acknowledged the mistake, and Zynga (the company behind Farmville and other apps) was slapped with a class-action lawsuit that would turn out to be the first of many for the company.
Back in 2008, rumors started spreading that if you hit the down arrow in the search box on Facebook, a list of the 5 people who most often search your name would pop up. So embarrassing for everyone! But probably not true. A bunch of different theories proliferated about this, and the real answer was that while names did show up (the glitch has long since been fixed), it was really just an algorithm-generated list of the people Facebook thinks you interact with the most. And you already knew they did this, didn't you?
The rumor has resurfaced numerous times since (including a recent "find your biggest stalker" firestorm), but while it was temporarily possible to see who you view the most, it seems that a humiliating "recent views"-style transparency is, if anything, a thing of the very distant future. You can go to OKCupid for that.
In 2007, Facebook introduced "Beacon," a program that, among other things, announced online purchases from sites like Blockbuster and Overstock in users' feeds. One man, for instance, bought jewelry online for his wife, who was then notified of the purchase (as were all of his other Facebook friends). That couple ended up as part of a class-action lawsuit against the site for violating federal privacy laws. The settlement was only finalized this past September, and among other things, required Facebook to give more than $6 million to a so-called "Digital Trust Fund" for the study of online privacy. Which surely means none of these problems will ever come up again, right?
Follow Virginia K. Smith on Twitter @vksmith.