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Should you trust Facebook with your email?

Posted by arnon_k On November - 20 - 2010 ADD COMMENTS

Michael Fertik is the CEO and Founder of ReputationDefender, the online privacy and reputation company. The views expressed are his own. –

Facebook already knows a massive amount about you. They know your age, what you look like, what you like, what you do for fun, where you go, what you eat, whom you know, whom you know well, whom you sleep with, who your best friends and family are, and, again, how old they are, what they like, and so on.

On top of that, Facebook has a well-known history of privacy breaches or at least snafus. Publicly they seem committed to the notion that privacy is dead. Their CEO and Founder has said as much.

Never mind that this view is not shared by the public, which is hungry for privacy in the digital age. And never mind that the “death of privacy” would serve exactly the interests of a digital media company. It seems that it may be an honestly held belief among top leadership of Facebook that privacy is and should be dead.

Now, Facebook is expanding its reach even further. It will be rolling out a unified, cross-platform messaging system that will combine features of email, SMS, and chat. The company will offer users email addresses. At first blush, there’s nothing altogether new about the development from a technical standpoint. Unified messaging has been a goal since the advent of disunified messaging—more or less since SMS, IM, and chat became comparably popular and used in parallel.

But a Facebook-based unified messaging system may offer different appeal and new risks, and not just because it can instantaneously distribute its feature set to its 500 million-plus user base.

It is impossible for a digital media company to care deeply about privacy. You are the only asset they have to sell. The promise of advertising in the Internet age is that the platform can connect a brand with the individual person most likely to buy. The only way that happens is through the collection and use of huge amounts of data about each of us, followed by the sale of access to the data or the person they describe.

There’s nothing wrong with advertising, and some digital media companies even want to care about privacy. But there is an unavoidable tension between the commercial demands of digital advertising and the privacy interests of the people whom the media businesses must treat as their saleable assets.

Why would we want to give a single company that is both commercially and ideologically not able or keen to support privacy even more information than we already do? Would we want to give that kind of business even more data than we give banks, search engines, telcos, browsers, or even the government?

The argument for sharing more information with companies like Facebook is that, by having more information about each of us, they can make our services more tailored to our particular needs. By reading our private messages, our emails, our SMSs, our chats, our photos, our wall posts, our check-ins, our status updates, and the patterns of our “meta-behavior” (how often we log in, the geo-stamp of our login location, etc.), they might offer suggestions on where to get a burger or even a discount on that burger. No doubt some of us will want the burger coupon.

But let me describe another scenario, just as plausible and much more financially rewarding than the burger discounts for the lead-generation companies that will surely seek to capitalize on it and similar projects. Take a 35-year-old healthy woman who is friends on a social network with a 65-year-old woman who shares her last name and who is part of a breast cancer survivors group. The same 35-year-old healthy woman receives an email about breast cancer from a friend. If you’re an insurer (or possibly an employer or even maybe a date), you’ll pay top dollar to get access to those two data points, because together they make a line that points toward a higher likelihood of future cancer. Today, those data points aren’t in the same database. With a fully merged and integrated unified messaging system, they will be. Hopefully, Facebook won’t ever want to engage in this kind of commerce, but the risk grows with every extra piece of information a company has about you, and business incentives may at some stage be too much even for goodwill to oppose.

It doesn’t matter if we think well or ill of Facebook in particular. It’s not a good idea to centralize all your most intimate details in one place—one easily replicated, mirrored, archived, and transmitted electronic place—if the house makes its money by selling data or access to what they’ve got on you.

Read Fertik’s guest blog posts at Harvard Business Review.

Facebook takes on Google and Yahoo in Web messages

Posted by arnon_k On November - 16 - 2010 ADD COMMENTS

(Reuters) – Facebook rolled out an all-in-one messaging service that for the first time allows its half-billion members to communicate with people outside the social network, intensifying a battle with Google Inc and Yahoo Inc for users’ Internet time.

Addressing speculation the world’s largest social networking site was planning a “Gmail-killer,” Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg said the new system will let users own “” addresses, but stressed it went beyond mere email.

The new feature — to be rolled out over coming months — lets users send and receive instant and text messages in addition to standard email and Facebook notes.

“This is not an email killer. This is a messaging system that includes email as one part of it,” Zuckerberg told reporters at the St. Regis hotel in San Francisco.

Zuckerberg, who said more than 350 million of Facebook’s half-billion users now actively send and receive messages on his website, did not expect people to stop using traditional email tomorrow.

But he hoped more and more will shift to an integrated, cross-platform mode of communications over the longer term, such as the service he debuted Monday.

Analysts say that email users are particularly valuable to Web portals like Yahoo, which seek to funnel the traffic into their other online services.

Facebook and Google’s intensifying rivalry is expected to play a crucial role in shaping the future of the Internet. The industry is closely watching their pitched struggle for Web surfers’ time online, advertising dollars, and increasingly costly Silicon Valley talent.


Forrester Research analyst Augie Ray said the new messaging service will help Facebook in its quest for user-engagement.

“What this allows is Facebook to become more central to people’s communications, and with that they have more (of people’s) time, they have more page views, and with that they have the opportunity to serve more ads,” Ray said.

More than 4 billion messages get sent everyday through Facebook, whose backers include Digital Sky Technologies, Microsoft, Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing and venture capital firms Accel Partners, Greylock Partners and Meritech Capital.

Its new product will automatically route messages from a person’s most frequently-contacted acquaintances into a main inbox, with messages from other contacts pooled in a separate inbox.

It also does away with some traditional email customs, such as the “subject” line. Instead, all the messages between two people are threaded together into one long-running conversation.

Users will also be able to view Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents as attachments to their messages, without having to download or pay for the software. Licensed users can create and send such documents as attachments.
Should all of Facebook’s active users adopt the new service, the social network would begin to approach the number of users now on Microsoft Corp’s hotmail, the most popular Internet email service.

Google, which controls roughly two-thirds of the global search market, offers the third-most popular Web email service, behind second-placed Yahoo, according to Web analytics firm comScore.

Last week, Google began blocking Facebook from importing user contact data from its Gmail email service — until Facebook reciprocates with its own trove of personal data.

In terms of potential privacy concerns, Zuckerberg stressed that the new service may actually be less intrusive than others’.

For instance, it would not automatically scan the contents of people’s email to display ads based on similar keywords, as is done by many of today’s popular Web-based email products like Gmail, he argued.

“Email is still really important to a lot of people. And we just think that this simpler kind of messaging is going to be how a lot more people shift a lot of their communications,” Zuckerberg said.

Google v Facebook: this means passive-aggressive war

Posted by arnon_k On November - 13 - 2010 1 COMMENT

Wait just one minute before you export your data to Facebook, says Google: are you sure you want to hand it over to some New Evil Empire^W^W^W other site?
“Hold on a second. Are you super sure you want to import your contact information for your friends into a service that won’t let you get it out? ”

This is Google’s new passive-aggressive front in its war against Facebook: a “trap my contacts now” page that you get redirected to if you try to export your Gmail contacts out, using the system that Facebook has implemented now that Google has removed the easy way of doing that (see Google halts Facebook data usage – so Facebook polevaults).

In the history of passive-aggressive notes, this is quite a doozy from Google:

“Here’s the not-so-fine print. You have been directed to this page from a site that doesn’t allow you to re-export your data to other services [emphasis added], essentially locking up your contact data about your friends. So once you import your data there, you won’t be able to get it out [emphasis added]. We think this is an important thing for you to know before you import your data there. Although we strongly disagree with this data protectionism, the choice is yours. Because, after all, you should have control over your data.”

You then get two checkbox options: “I want to be able to export my data from Facebook. Please register a complaint on my behalf over data protectionism. (Google will not pass on your name or email address.)” or “I still want to proceed with exporting this data. I recognize that I won’t be able to export it back out.”

We’ll be interested to see how this one plays out – and whether Google gets a large number of people going with its protest.

Facebook won’t ‘share’ contacts with Gmail

Posted by arnon_k On November - 11 - 2010 ADD COMMENTS

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg talks about “sharing” info and “connecting” people to each other more than Kanye West talks about himself. And the site’s mission statement hits those themes hard, saying Facebook’s goal is to give people “the power to share and make the world more open and connected.”

So it might come as a surprise to Facebook users that the site takes a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do approach to letting people share their own information with one of its biggest competitors.

In what’s been called “data hoarding,” Facebook will not let users export their Facebook contacts lists — which include pictures and e-mails — to Google’s e-mail system.

That’s not new, but Facebook’s anti-sharing policy has come under scrutiny recently since Google last week retaliated by blocking users from uploading their Gmail contacts to Facebook, according to TechCrunch.

Facebook, in turn, found a work-around that let it pull in contact lists from Google anyway — a sort of technical slap in the face to Google.

“We’re disappointed that Facebook didn’t invest their time in making it possible for their users to get their contacts out of Facebook,” a Google spokesperson wrote in an e-mail to CNN. “As passionate believers that people should be able to control the data they create, we will continue to allow our users to export their Google contacts.”

Facebook did not respond to a CNN request for comment.

At first read, this may sound kind of silly or irrelevant — two multibillion-dollar tech companies bickering with each other. But these companies hold the keys to millions of peoples’ online identities. They control whether you can download or export lists of your contacts, where on the internet you can use those lists, and which data companies they’ll sell this information to.

The new lockdowns on user data could signal a change in how the Web works, writes Michael Arrington from TechCrunch.

The big tech companies are now in a “data war,” and it may be hard to stop this escalation now that it has started, writes Arrington, who sees Facebook as the aggressor in this situation.

Facebook “just pretty much refused to let users export social graph data, even though they import it like crazy from every source they can get their hands on,” he says.

The Wall Street Journal compared the situation to “what happens when a 6-year-old and a 12-year-old get in a fight.” (Facebook is the 6-year-old, apparently.)

“Expect neither side to let go easily,” Geoffrey A. Fowler writes.

Despite this fight, it’s still possible to share your contacts among plenty of websites, which makes it easier to find friends on social networks and to synchronize the digital contacts you’ve accumulated from various sources.

Below is a list of four of the big players in the online contacts space, and who shares with whom, compiled from each of these sites’ contacts pages. This should give you an idea of how “trapped” your data is in any one of these services. (Note that companies who are “friends” — i.e. Facebook and Microsoft, since that company owns a stake in Facebook — tend to be fans of sharing data. Rivals like Google and Facebook — not so much):

Who holds onto your data?

Google: Exports contacts to Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo

Facebook: Exports contacts to Microsoft, Yahoo (not Google)

Microsoft: Exports contacts to Google, Facebook and Yahoo

Yahoo: Exports contacts to Google and Facebook (not Microsoft)