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Online Privacy in the News

In recent months, social media giants Facebook and Google have made headlines for controversial decisions affecting user privacy. Here’s some information to help you educate yourself and others about these privacy implications.

Facebook announced two changes: community pages and personalized web tools.

Community Pages are “a new type of Facebook Page dedicated to a topic or experience that is owned collectively by the community connected to it.” If your Facebook profile lists schools you’ve attended, cities where you’ve lived, or your interests, you will see the  option to join Community Pages for those places and things. The privacy concern: even if you have customized your personal settings to control who can see the affiliations you list on your profile, your name will still be publicly linked from the pages of the communities you join.

Personalized Web Tools were also introduced recently. When you remain logged in to Facebook while surfing the web, you will notice Facebook “social plugins” integrated with other sites across the web. This gives you the opportunity to, for example, “like” a product or see how many of your Facebook friends recommend it. Three sites – Yelp.com, Pandora.com and Microsoft Docs.com, have special information-sharing arrangements with Facebook. By default, if you use one of these partner sites while logged in to Facebook, it will have access to your publicly accessible Facebook profile information– including your list of friends–  in order to “personalize your experience” and make suggestions to you.

These graphs illustrate changes in Facebook’s privacy policies that have, over time, led to dramatic increases in the amount of personal information that is shared. Facebook offers opt-out instructions for community pages and personalized web tools in the articles linked above, but unless you customize your privacy settings, you are opting in. Here are step-by-step instructions for performing a  thorough privacy audit of your Facebook account.

Google made the news for a privacy breach surrounding the introduction of Google Buzz, an application that allows for quick sharing of status updates, links, photos, etc. and is integrated with Gmail, Picasa and other Google services. When Google Buzz launched, it was activated by default for everyone with a Google account. Google mined users’ Gmail contacts and correspondence habits to set up social networks automatically. It also listed users’ Gmail contacts on their public profile pages without permission. These automatically generated networks did not take into account the various personal and professional reasons people have for emailing each other. You might have email correspondence with your doctor, for example, but you would never intend to share information about your personal life with him or her, and vice versa.

Within days, Google took measures to increase the prominence of options enabling users to unfollow or block contacts that had been automatically assigned, disconnect Buzz from Gmail, and/or opt out of Buzz altogether. Here are those options as outlined in the official Google blog.

The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom aims to put libraries at the center of a discussion about online privacy issues. You can join in this discussion (anonymously, if you choose!) on the Voices for Privacy blog. You may also be interested to read about proposed federal legislation intended to strengthen online privacy protections for consumers.

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