Facebook Connect lets users “take control” of privacy while surfing

Facebook Connect is one log-in approach to the Web that can help users take control of their privacy while they’re surfing, according to the social network.

The new service, launched Dec. 4, allows any Web site to plug in to the Facebook network, and offers members of the social network the opportunity to share information with friends.

By sitting between the user’s personal information and the third-party Web site, Facebook acts as a privacy mediator, according to Chris Kelly, chief privacy officer at Facebook.

“We’ve provided a privacy layer for those who want to share information across the Web,” he says. “You have the power to decide what to share, with whom and when.”

Kelly spoke with ITBusiness.ca at a conference hosted by Ontario Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian. The focus was on technologies designed with privacy in mind. 

The commissioner has worked with Facebook in the past. She’s appeared in a video with Kelly that focuses on privacy settings available to users. The office has also produced pamphlets and Web information aimed at boosting youth awareness about the importance of changing your privacy settings, and not leaving it to default at the most open setting.

Facebook Connect is a forward-looking model that will become more prominent as people find more of their personal information is made available over the Web, she says.

“Increasingly, with privacy in the cloud identity management will become federated,” Cavoukian says. “If you deal with multiple organizations, you will authenticate your identity at the entry point, with the first group you’re dealing with, and they manage your identity for you.”

The service is easy for Web developers to tap into. By downloading a small plug-in file, installing it, and then doing some minor code tweaking, any Web site owner or blogger can tap into Facebook’s vast number of users. (Here’s one blogger’s step-by-step instructions on making Connect work with a WordPress blog.)

Blogger Ryan McReynolds makes use of the service to allow hig readers to post comments in response to his posts. Each of his blog posts is also exported to Facebook as a note, and provides a link back to his original post.

But not everyone is comfortable with Facebook positioning itself as a privacy mediator between users and Web sites.

Last summer, the University of Ottawa-based Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) filed a complaint against the social network with the federal Office of the Privacy Commissioner. The complaint sparked an investigation into whether Facebook’s policies are in violation of Canada’s privacy law.

Facebook is by far the favourite social network of Canadians. As of December, more than 10 million Canadians had an account or nearly one-third of the population.

While Facebook makes genuine efforts to offer its users control over their privacy, the problem is its profits are driven by its ability to move advertising, says David Fewer, acting director of CIPPIC. There will always be tension in protecting privacy for an organization that would benefit from sharing information more openly.

“I do take some issue with Facebook passing themselves off as an honest broker,” he says. “This is one of those cases where the watchdog definitely needs a watcher.”

Facebook Connect is a new service that wasn’t included in the CIPPIC complaint.

But Facebook ran into problems the last time it tried to fit external Web sites into its social networking mix. With the launch of Beacon in November 2007, information about Facebook users was sent from 44 partner sites back to Facebook, without users giving permission.

A user’s Web activities, such as buying tickets, would show up in their news feed. Facebook later allowed users to opt-out of Beacon, but a class-action lawsuit was filed against it last summer over the controversy.

The social network has learned its lesson, Kelly says.

“The core lesson from Beacon is that you have to give users control over their information,” he says. “We didn’t do it adequately and users didn’t understand what was happening in that situation. We need to make sure that any implementation of third-party sites is crystal clear to users.”

The need for users to have control over what they share was also proven to be critical, the chief privacy officer adds.

“People set their privacy settings on Facebook, and all Connect sites have to respect those preferences,” he says.

There are about 100 sites that are making use of the connect service. They include CNN, MyBarackObama, TechCrunch, CBC News, and the University of Toronto’s alumni association.

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