Facebook’s newest attempt to resolve the pri­vacy issues raised by users is get­ting mixed reviews. Assis­tant Pro­fessor of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence Alan Mis­love, whose research focuses on how people interact in the vir­tual world, dis­cusses what’s ahead for social networking.

Has Face­book fixed its pri­vacy issues for good, or will this con­tinue to be an issue?
What Face­book has addressed so far is the mech­a­nism for expressing pri­vacy con­trols. Orig­i­nally, they added very gran­ular con­trols, allowing users to specify the pri­vacy set­tings for almost every fea­ture and piece of con­tent indi­vid­u­ally. They’ve promised to sim­plify this, and pro­vide fewer, more global, settings.

More impor­tantly, though, what I haven’t seen them address are the defaults. Many, if not most, users do not change the pri­vacy set­tings from the defaults set by Face­book, which makes every­thing except for con­tact infor­ma­tion and birthday vis­ible to the entire Internet. If Face­book set con­ser­v­a­tive defaults where only a user’s friends were able to view his or her con­tent, I strongly doubt that you would see a large number of users changing their set­tings so that their con­tent is vis­ible to the entire Internet.

I believe that not many users under­stand that, unless they change their pri­vacy set­tings, almost all of their activity on Face­book is vis­ible to any Internet user.

How does online social net­working rede­fine the con­cept of pri­vacy?
I’m not con­vinced by argu­ments that social net­working rede­fines the notion of pri­vacy. I haven’t seen any strong evi­dence that users view pri­vacy dif­fer­ently on these sites versus in the offline world.

My opinion is sup­ported by the fact that many of the pat­terns of human inter­ac­tion in the offline world have been shown to also be true on sites like Face­book. For example, people may have thou­sands of “friends” on Face­book, but researchers have observed that people interact only with a small number of them. Sim­i­larly, we’ve observed that people form tight-​​knit groups in online social net­works, much in the same way that soci­ol­o­gists have observed offline. Thus, I have yet to see com­pelling evi­dence that peo­ples’ inter­ac­tion pat­terns, or views on pri­vacy, have shifted.

Your research relies on gath­ering data from social net­works. Will the emer­gence of user-​​controlled pri­vacy set­tings neg­a­tively impact your research?
Yes and no. If users begin to use their pri­vacy set­tings to restrict who can view their infor­ma­tion, then our cur­rent method­ology of “crawling” infor­ma­tion will no longer allow us to col­lect data on a sig­nif­i­cant frac­tion of the net­work. I believe that such a tran­si­tion is inevitable, as people start sharing more per­sonal and pri­vate infor­ma­tion, and become more aware of the impli­ca­tions of such sharing.

How­ever, I believe that the bal­ance between user pri­vacy and allowing researchers access to data is one that has been faced before in other areas. For example, there are strict rules that allow access to anonymized results from health studies. While this a dif­ferent domain, it shows that a bal­ance can be struck in the privacy/​research data debate, even when the data is extremely pri­vate med­ical data.

My hope is that the research com­mu­nity will settle on a set of “best prac­tices” regarding the anonymiza­tion and use of data from online social networks.

Has the growth of social net­working allowed research into cer­tain aspects of human behavior that was not pos­sible before? Why is this research impor­tant?
Absolutely, and this is one of the most exciting things about online social net­works. This data is extremely fine grained, and of a scale that is unprece­dented in the social sci­ences. I believe that it could help to verify or inval­i­date the­o­ries in fields like soci­ology, psy­chology, polit­ical sci­ence and anthro­pology; to better design the com­puter sys­tems that underlie these sites; and to develop a richer under­standing on how society func­tions at scale.

Some urge the U.S. Fed­eral Trade Com­mis­sion to set up pri­vacy guide­lines for all social net­working sites, including Face­book, Twitter and MySpace. Is gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion a pos­si­bility?
I can see two argu­ments why gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion may be nec­es­sary. First, Face­book has become the largest social net­work with more than 400 mil­lion users — a near monopoly. Thus, lack of “com­pe­ti­tion” in the social net­working space makes it dif­fi­cult for the market to find the right stance on user privacy.

Second, and more impor­tantly, the net­work effect pre­vents people from easily switching from one social net­work to another. Because there’s very little ben­efit to being the only one of your friends on a social net­working site, users are unlikely to switch from Face­book due to pri­vacy con­cerns until some of their friends do. This cre­ates a bit of a chicken-​​and-​​egg problem.