Science & Technology

The Privacy Machiavellis Part I: Facebook

Chris Hoofnagle

Niccolò Machiavelli was brilliant. His writings are delightful, clear, and drawing upon the ancients, the lessons he crafted are still relevant today. Especially among companies whose privacy approaches are more public relations than substance. Example 1: Facebook. In today’s New York Times, Nick Bilton reports on the decision environment created by Facebook’s privacy options:

Niccolo Machiavelli

… men in general judge rather by the eye than by the hand, for every one can see but few can touch. Every one sees what you seem, but few know what you are… Machiavelli, The Prince, chapter XIII at 130 (Hill Thompson, translator; New York: Heritage Press, 1955).

“…Facebook users who hope to make their personal information private should be prepared to spend a lot of time pressing a lot of buttons. To opt out of full disclosure of most information, it is necessary to click through more than 50 privacy buttons, which then require choosing among a total of more than 170 options.”

This approach is brilliant. The company can appease regulators with this approach (e.g. Facebook’s Elliot Schrage is quoted as saying, “We have tried to offer the most comprehensive and detailed controls and comprehensive and detailed information about them.”), and at the same time appear to be giving consumers the maximum number of options.

But this approach is manipulative and is based upon a well-known problem in behavioral economics known as the paradox of choice.

Too much choice can make decisions more difficult, and once made, those choices tend to be regretted.

But most importantly, too much choice causes paralysis. This is the genius of the Facebook approach: give consumer too much choice, and they will 1) take poor choices, thereby increasing revelation of personal information and higher ROI or 2) take no choice, with the same result. In any case, the fault is the consumer’s, because they were given a choice!

How could Facebook improve this situation? The paradox of choice would suggest that a simple slider bar that controlled a wide array of individual settings, like Internet Explorer’s privacy settings, would be an improvement. But even better than that would be a “preview” mode; a feature that allowed one to see what their profile actually looks like to friends, friends of friends, the internet, and advertisers.

Update: Woodrow Hartzog just wrote to me to say that my preview suggestion is built into Facebook. I’ve never noticed it. To use it, go to Privacy Settings > Profile Information and on the right, there’s a button that reads “Preview my Profile”. This is an important feature and it could help users understand the implications of their settings.

Update 2: The Chronicle is running a version of this as an oped

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