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Facebook Privacy Ethics

By Rachel Hanebutt
1 Dec 2014

While “Like,” “Share,” and “Tag,” have made their way into our everyday vocabulary, the ethics of Facebook’s privacy practices has also become a matter of discussion.  But what has not been brought to light are the restrictions (or lack thereof) on Facebook users in regards to their privacy and unclear rules on newsfeed manipulation.

From lack of user knowledge of privacy settings to targeted advertising due to user-specific “likes,” Facebook has received an increasing amount of criticism from users who believe their online privacy has been left up to the decisions of the company itself.  Once a user has “liked” a group or organization, Facebook tailors future newsfeed make-ups according to the user’s decisions.  After these decisions have been made by the user, however, there is little that can be done to reverse them.

There is also controversy surrounding user privacy when it comes to the geographical location tracking accompanying any post where a user “checks-in” or allows their device to track their location. Burglaries and other privacy invasions have occurred from increasing other people’s knowledge of a user’s whereabouts.  Users who are not friends sometimes have the capacity to see posts without straightforward consent.

In a recent interview, Adrienne Lafrance reports, “there are many issues to unpack here and one of them is sort of the extent to which this manipulation has to do with consent.”  Speaking specifically about a study (lacking approval from IRB), which manipulated user news feeds to assess user emotion, Lafrance reveals the bigger issue of “lead[ing] people to experience emotions without their awareness.”  This argument of user manipulation without consent pinpoints the importance of discussing how user data is used, by whom, and for what reasons.

According to recent posts, however, Facebook will be re-vamping its privacy settings on January 1, 2015, alerting all users of their new privacy policy.  This policy is said to be titled, “Privacy Basics,” and will ultimately allow users to see exactly who their posts will be shared with; a change accompanied by interactive guides explaining the ins and outs of Facebook’s privacy settings.  First-of-the-year changes will also include increased “Nearby Friends” and location-based activity posts, as well as more user control over advertisements.  Some users, however, are worried that this new privacy policy will be yet another example of Facebook’s misleading terms and conditions.

While these changes bring about additional questions of how signing on to this new policy will affect users, the real question becomes: How much control should a company, like Facebook, have on an individual’s privacy decisions online? Or does online privacy simply not exist?

Rachel graduated from DePauw in 2015 and was a Political Science and Education Studies major from Huntingburg, Indiana. She received a Master's from the Mind, Brain, and Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
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