Put off by prying eyes, people push for more privacy online

By Scott Canon and Judy L. Thomas

McClatchy Newspapers

(MCT)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Freelance writer and Kansas City travel book author Katy Ryan is a deeply rooted citizen of the Facebook world.

It’s a place to promote her book, stay in touch with friends and post musings “three to five times a day — even more.”

Ryan, 27, also is part of a growing segment of the nearly 500 million Facebook users. She’s irritated about the site’s ever-changing privacy rules. She feels as if she’s been invited somewhere for intimacy only to find the private made ever more public.

“I can’t quit because I need it professionally, and I’m addicted to it,” Ryan said. “But the privacy thing does bother me. I was online the other night trying to adjust my privacy settings, and I didn’t understand everything. … Mostly I don’t like that you have to opt out of sharing information when it seems like you should have to opt in.”

A Digital Age society that seemed so intent on sharing so much appears to be in retreat, awakened to how technology makes uncomfortably communal what people assumed was confidential.

For now, the biggest revolt is at Facebook — a virtual community so large that if it existed in the real world it would trail only India and China in population.

Boycotts are forming over Facebook’s move to extend its network to other websites. Federal regulators have been called on to instill order on privacy rules, and breakaway republics are calling for an exodus to alternate utopias.

People old and young are shifting their privacy standards — and they are frustrated at what a tricky feat that poses.

Despite the perception that modesty is dead — fueled by anecdotes of teenage girls sending sexually explicit photos and messages on their smart phones or star athletes tweeting dish about their coaches — research suggests Americans also want the private kept private.

One study found that the number of teens who blog dropped by half in three years. Another study concluded that almost two in three teens let only friends see their online profiles. A third survey found that nearly nine in 10 Americans — and the numbers hold steady across age groups — have refused to surrender information about themselves online to companies on the grounds that a request was too personal.

More than half of Americans say they now worry more about privacy on the Internet than they did five years ago. Just one in 20 is less anxious.

Things that have long been public, such as property tax records, court filings and campaign donations, now feel more public. What once required a trip to a courthouse and some record-searching savvy now can be found by your neighbor or ex-husband with a few mouse clicks.

“People search” engines such as ZoomInfo, Intelius and Spokeo collect names, addresses, phone numbers and real estate information from online public sources. The services also gather personal information from social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn.

The ambitious new set of features Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg unveiled during his recent keynote address will make Facebook the central nervous system of the Web. (Andrea Maschietto and Pai/San Jose Mercury News/MCT)

Within seconds, a search of a person’s name on Spokeo, for example, turns up his age, address, education, hobbies, the number of people in his home, the home’s estimated value and median neighborhood income. For a fee, the website promises even more. However, the data aren’t verified, and sample searches quickly show that in many cases the information is wrong.

Some of the websites let you delete your name, but that doesn’t scrub your presence from the rest of the Internet.

Data mining has become an industry, a silent harvest of information about where you travel on the Web, what you buy and the online friends you’ve chosen.

That information is very valuable to marketers, and it is essentially what pays for your time on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and the growing universe of social networking. It also is what has made Mark Zuckerberg the villain of the month.

The wunderkind started Facebook in 2004 in his Harvard University dorm room.

When a friend asked how he had amassed more than 4,000 e-mails, pictures and addresses of people on the Cambridge, Mass., campus, Zuckerberg reportedly e-mailed that “people just submitted it. … I don’t know why. … They trust me.” And then he profanely called them dumb.

Facebook was an instant sensation. It quickly encompassed all the Ivy League, then dozens of colleges, and then the world.

Zuckerberg has rejected many offers, some for as much as $15 billion, to sell the company. Yet only this year is Facebook finally expected to turn a profit on revenue approaching $2 billion.

What makes it so valuable? Data.

Advertisers and marketers see gold in the identities revealed through social networking — people sharing their ages, the beers they drink and the musicians they idolize.

Part of the reason people flocked to Facebook in such large numbers — compared with sites that drew similar traffic before — was its offer of a seemingly safe space of friends. If a college student wanted to reminisce about last night’s kegger, she could post pictures so only campus friends would see. If she wanted to talk about a preacher’s sermon that moved her, well, that’s a post that Dad could see, too.

In 2005, the default privacy settings for Facebook shared your pictures and thoughts only with people in your various networks on the site. By last month, virtually everything — your pictures, the organizations you clicked to “like,” your friends and more — were made available to the entire Internet unless you tweaked your settings.

The company readjusted the default settings in response to user backlash. (Facebook and MySpace in recent weeks stopped sharing consumers’ names and personal details with advertisers in response to queries about the practice from The Wall Street Journal. The companies had said they only shared broad demographic information.)

In the face of a fresh wave of criticism, Zuckerberg on Wednesday announced changes to simplify privacy settings. Facebook also scaled back the information everyone can access, limiting to a user’s name, gender, network and profile picture. It also made it easier to opt out of the site’s “instant personalization” feature.

But politicians have joined the backlash for privacy, pressing the Federal Trade Commission to impose privacy standards on social networks.

Privacy groups have filed complaints with the commission, accusing Facebook of “deceptive practices” in the way it sets and periodically changes its privacy policies and user settings.

“It’s a bait and switch,” said Wendy Seltzer, a fellow with Silicon Flatirons, a law and technology think tank at the University of Colorado. “They keep opening up much more information by default. They change the space without telling users clearly enough.”

Critics say social networks that can’t be trusted should be left behind, and some are campaigning for a mass walkout from Facebook on May 31.

“We just can’t see Facebook’s current direction being aligned with any positive future for the Web, so we’re leaving,” says the website QuitFacebookDay.com.

Last month, four New York University students began raising money to create an alternative to Facebook called Diaspora, a “decentralized social networking framework.” In three weeks they raised more than $178,000 from 5,400 donors. The creators are promising “full control of your online identity.”

Why do people even want online identities?

“To be the stars of their own reality shows,” said Parry Aftab, an expert on cyberspace security and the executive director of WiredSafety.org, an organization that serves on Facebook’s Safety Advisory Board. “They get attention. They think people are interested in when they’re brushing their teeth, when they just had a cup of coffee, every time they start a diet and when they start dating.”

But just like in the real world, even information shared only with friends gets passed on — sometimes by those same friends.

“Once you put something online, there’s no pulling it back in,” said Jeff Lanza, a former FBI agent who now consults on Internet fraud and security.

Launched earlier this month, the website Openbook.org combines all public Facebook posts into a continually updated stream, making it easy to search for embarrassing comments.

A search of the phrase “my boss is” resulted in tons of posts, including “My boss is an (expletive). I wish I could punch him out.” Mike in Texas wrote, “My boss is driving me crazy, he actually EXPECTS good work in reasonable time. Forget it man u cant have both so choose.”

Just this month, a waitress at a pizza place in Charlotte, N.C., was fired after complaining on Facebook about some customers who stayed for three hours, forcing her to work beyond her shift, then left what she thought was a paltry tip.

Buck Sommerkamp of Lee’s Summit, Mo., a website developer, is keen to the dangers of online sharing. He takes care with all his Facebook settings and is cautious about what he posts.

“They’re putting people in the position of constantly monitoring. And I’m getting tired of it,” he said. But Facebook is key to his business and a valued part of his social life.

“Someday I might reach the point where this isn’t worth it,” he said. “I’m not there yet.”

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WHAT SHOULD BE PRIVATE?

According to a University of California at Berkeley survey:

—88 percent of Americans believe “anyone who uploads a photo or video of me to the Internet where I am clearly recognizable should first get my permission.”

—68 percent of Americans “think there should be a law that gives people the right to know everything that a website knows about them.”

—92 percent of Americans “think there should be a law that requires websites and advertising companies to delete all stored information about an individual.”

—Half of Americans “hardly ever” or never read the privacy policies of websites and only 14 percent do so often.

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A FAST-GROWING GIANT

Facebook, the world’s largest social networking site, was founded in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg, then a 19-year-old computer whiz at Harvard University who started writing software in the sixth grade.

Originally called TheFacebook, the site began as an online student directory created by Zuckerberg and two roommates. After spreading across the Harvardcampus, the site expanded to other universities, becoming so popular that Zuckerberg dropped out and moved to California to run it.

The number of users skyrocketed as Zuckerberg expanded Facebook access from college students to high school students and, finally, to adults. Initial funding for the company consisted of $500,000 from Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal, in 2004. In 2005, the company received $12.7 million from Accel Partners and later received $27.5 million from Greylock Partners. It also received funding from Meritech Capital Partners.

Facebook was sued in its early years by ConnectU, a similar social networking site whose creators said Zuckerberg stole their idea in 2003 when they hired him to create a campus dating site. Zuckerberg denied the allegations, and last year Facebook settled the lawsuit.

Today, Facebook has nearly 500 million users, 1,200 employees and a custom-built search engine that serves millions of queries a day.

The company headquarters is in Palo Alto, Calif., with offices throughout the United States and in Ireland, England, Italy, France, Sweden, Australia andCanada. CEO Zuckerberg, who turned 26 this month, is often referred to as the world’s youngest billionaire.

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LET’S GET SOCIAL

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project:

—73 percent of American teens used social networking websites in 2009, compared to 65 percent in 2008 and 55 percent in 2006.

—47 percent of U.S. adults used social networks in 2009, compared to 37 percent in 2008.

—Of adults who use social networks, 52 percent have two or more different profiles.

—74 percent of all adults go online, compared to 93 percent of people aged 12 to 29.

TEEN CAUTION

Facebook says that 60 percent of teens on the system use privacy controls, compared with 25 to 30 percent of adult users.

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(c) 2010, The Kansas City Star.

Visit The Star Web edition on the World Wide Web at http://www.kansascity.com.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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