Universities, Privacy, and Facebook: An Important Dialogue

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With all of the talk in the news about Facebook’s privacy policy, it’s important for colleges and universities to understand what’s going on.  The Facebook move towards openness with their user data has freaked pragmatic users out, even getting mainstream dialogs about staying off of Facebook, like this one at the economics blog Baseline Scenario.

So by now, you guys have probably gotten the drill. Facebook is ever-evolving. Into what? That’s still up for debate. Some thought leaders in the industry seem to think that it’s positioning themselves to become like Google.  I’ve said they’re out to eat the internet. Higher Ed has strong obligations to data privacy, cemented by the law in FERPA.  However, everyone acknowledges that FERPA is out-of-date and there’s much talk, at the Federal level, of changing FERPA to keep up with the times. In addition, administrators tend to think FERPA is a rigid law, but the law was designed to be flexible enough that FERPA, Facebook and Social Media are not antagonistic.

But what’s all of the hoopla about Facebook now?

Core complaints with Facebook’s new changes

For those who haven’t quite digested the big deal with all of the fuss about Facebook’s privacy changes, here’s the deal:

  • You have to visit different links to hide your profile from the public
  • Facebook uses your info in ads to other users
  • Websites using “instant personalization” automatically pull your info upon visiting in order to “personalize” your visit
  • Your friends can share your information with third-parties
  • The Open Graph API allows the world to search public status updates, names, profile pictures, etc…

Really though?  All this smack talk is just that: smack talk. Hype.  Why?

Most People want to Broadcast, not Stay Private.

    Facebook for college Admissions: Tristan Walker from Foursquare opining about Facebook's privacy update

Facebook for college Admissions: Tristan Walker from Foursquare opining about Facebook's privacy update.

Most of Facebook’s nearly 500 Million users, along with most corporate marketing teams are trying to broadcast rather than limit their audiences.  Making updates browsable and searchable means more exposure, brand recognition, and customers.

But don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. As mentioned before, Facebook is the ideal place for colleges and universities to tell their story because your entire audience is there.  Facebook has created a system that allows groups of people with conflicting privacy needs to be accommodated, so instead of freaking out – just learn to use them.

The bottom line is this:

Privacy and openness can coexist peacefully.

Facebook’s argument, which we believe holds true in the long run, is that defaulting to openness creates a higher awareness of the content people publish on the web and pushes users to become more responsible when it comes to social networking. At the end of the day, the onus is not on Facebook to make sure that your data is properly managed (at least, according to Facebook).  Facebook’s responsibility is to provide a platform for people who want to be public AND people who want to remain private, with defaults and incentives towards content creation.

Inigral, or Facebook would not be in business if this weren’t the case. It’s the very reason why we work on top of Facebook’s platform to build applications for the institutions we work with. It allows us to leverage the fact that all of your students are on Facebook while keeping their data (and more importantly your data from the SIS) secure, and away from Facebook.

Other resources on the Facebook privacy situation are below: