Will continuing concerns over Facebook privacy change user behavior?

The changes Facebook made to its privacy practices and, in particular, default settings and additional personal information about Facebook users that is made public, continue to draw a lot of attention, and not in a positive way. Among the latest news item is an article from Wired that describes how some technology-savvy web marketers are taking advantage of the new Facebook default privacy settings to harvest information about Facebook users and people in their online friend networks. It’s not entirely clear how many of Facebook’s hundreds of millions of registered users have taken action to change their privacy settings since the new practices went into effect a month ago, but anyone who has not is exposing the majority of their profile information not just to users on their own friends lists, but to all the friends of their friends. Even for a user who takes action to restrict the visibility of their information from methods such as web searches, if an outsider know the user’s email address, that is enough to get to core profile information that Facebook now treats as public.

Concern among Facebook users has apparently also resulting is spike in activity to delete Facebook accounts, including through the use of third-party services like Seppukoo and Suicide Machine. Use of these services to remove Facebook accounts has reached sufficient levels to prompt Facebook to start trying to block access from these services (primarily through blocking IP addresses), although Facebook also reportedly sent a cease-and-desist letter to the creators of Seppukoo.com, claiming that the third-party access to Facebook from Seppukoo violates Facebook’s terms of service and may be prohibited by various computer use and intellectual property laws.

Stepping behind a sociological lens for a moment, what may be more interesting than the debate between Facebook, its users, and privacy advocates may be the extent to which the heightened attention on user privacy will actually result in a shift in behavior among users. An academic research in the U.K. featured by the BBC this week argues that the decision by social networking users to publish more and more of their personal information online effectively reduces privacy for everyone, in part by diminishing expectations of privacy. The idea here is that from a societal perspective privacy norms are just that, norms, rather that the most or least restrictive interpretations, so when a greater proportion of people opt for looser interpretations of privacy, the societal norm shifts in that direction. This fairly straightforward idea touches on one of the hardest aspects associated with managing trust (online or otherwise), since there are few hard and fast rules about what does and doesn’t constitute trustworthiness. Instead, trust from personal or organizational perspectives is highly subjective, making the establishment and maintenance acceptable levels of trust an elusive goal.