There was, for a time, a pretty clear moral hierarchy in the tech sector. Microsoft was the evil overlord, Apple the virtuous underling.
But all that has begun to shift. There is talk of an antitrust investigation against Apple. The company endured an avalanche of bad press after a frighteningly intense effort to track down a lost iPhone prototype.
And Jon Stewart recently blasted the outfit — “Apple, you guys were the rebels, man, the underdogs!” — before a graphic featuring the word “Appholes” (see “Apple loses its cool,” May 14).
Now, other tech powers that once seemed righteous — or, at least, harmless — are facing image problems of their own. Chief among them: Facebook, which critics allege is violating users’ privacy.
The social networking site started out with what Danah Boyd, a Microsoft social media researcher and fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, labels a “strong promise of privacy.”
Initially, one had to be situated at a university or in some other tight-knit network to join Facebook. But as the company grew — it now has some 500 million users worldwide — its approach to privacy shifted.
Facebook Beacon, an advertising program launched in 2007, shared users’ information with third-party sites like Blockbuster and Fandango, inspiring a small insurrection and a lawsuit that eventually killed the initiative.
And in the spring, the company launched its sweeping Open Graph initiative, which attempts to expand our conception of on-line connectivity beyond friends to other on-line interests — say, favorite news sites or eateries.
One effort known as “instant personalization” works in partnership with three web sites, Windows Docs, Pandora, and Yelp. The program, which is expected to grow, allows a third-party site to delve into a user’s pub-lic Facebook information — name, gender, and connections — and provide a heads-up on, say, a singer or a restaurant recommended by a friend.
Facebook automatically enrolled all of its users in the program when it launched last month, requiring the uneasy to opt out through a complicated and cumbersome procedure.
Criticism forced the company to move from an opt-out to an opt-in model. But the controversy over instant personalization pointed to a larger Facebook tendency: pressing users to share more and more in-formation, and retreating only in the face of a public outcry.
So, not surprisingly, the critique of instant personalization remains strong. Here in Rhode Island, an East Providence Facebook user has filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court, alleging that the company shared users’ information with third-party sites absent informed consent.
The Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has filed three complaints with the Federal Trade Commission against Facebook.
And Ginger McCall, staff counsel with EPIC, says the social-netwroking giant has compromised its basic compact with customers. “Facebook has told its users that you, the user, will be able to disclose your information,” she says. “And that’s just not true.”