When Consumer Reports writes about home appliances it tells you their strengths and weaknesses, but I've never seen any dire warnings about how you can lose your hand if you stick it in a garbage disposal. Even when they review cars, they don't fill their articles with awful statistics about how thousands die each year as a result of drunk or reckless driving. There are lots of reviews of cell phones but never have I seen headlines about how easy it is for strangers within earshot to hear your half of a private conversation.
Yet when the popular consumer magazine decided to write about Facebook, it focused extensively on how it's possible for people to use the service in ways that jeopardize their privacy even though, based on their own statistics, the vast majority of users -- just like people who use home appliances -- have mostly positive experiences with Facebook. The story appears online and in the June issue of Consumer Reports. Disclosure: I'm co-director of ConnectSafely.org, a nonprofit Internet safety organization that receives financial support from Facebook.
It's certainly true that some Facebook users post things they later regret -- just like some people use phones to say things they wish they could take back. It's also true that some people are careless about their privacy settings -- just like some drivers fail to use seat belts. And just as things sometimes go wrong with even the highest rated appliances, there are, of course, going to be some people who have bad experiences while on Facebook.
Yet more than 900 million people use Facebook including many politicians, thousands of nonprofit groups, celebrities and even religious organizations. Even Consumer Reports has a Facebook page where, according to their article, they "host live chats with our experts, share articles, and query visitors to help in our reporting." They have even "bought ads on Facebook to tell users about our activities."
To its credit, Consumer Reports did point out that Facebook has been a boon to commerce, has helped the U.S. government deliver services, helps reunite people and pets separated in disasters and enables active duty military to keep in touch with their families. I'm sure the article was written before Facebook announced last week that it's making it easier for people to save lives by becoming organ donors, resulting in a huge spike in registrations. Unlike the washing machines that Consumer Reports so competently reviews, Facebook can't get your clothes clean, but -- like a vital component in those washing machines -- there are agitators among Facebook's users who have helped to topple oppressive regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and other countries.
What can -- but probably won't -- go wrong
The magazine spoke with privacy advocates and others about what can possibly go wrong when it comes to privacy and its first -- rather obvious -- conclusion was that "some people are sharing too much." Based on a survey, it extrapolated that 4.8 million Americans have shared where they are going and that 4.7 million had "liked" a page about a health condition. What they didn't mention was that this represents about 3 percent of the 150 million U.S. users. That means that about 97 percent of users didn't do those things. Nor did the article acknowledge that not everyone necessarily considers those activities to be risky. Sure, there is a very slight risk that your house could be burglarized if you disclose that you're away, but there are also great advantages to sharing your travels. I recently posted that I was in Qatar, and got a Facebook message from a fellow journalist who lives there, offering to take me on what turned out to be a great tour. People who choose to "Like" pages or sites about medical conditions often benefit from incredible support and sometimes even life-saving advice. This is one of the web's greatest strengths.
We all have the right to protect our privacy but we also have the right to share information. What's important is that Facebook offers controls such as the pull down menu for every post that allows you to decide who gets to see what you're posting.
Consumer Reports' statistics tell a positive story
The magazine reported that "Almost 13 million users said they had never set, or didn't know about, Facebook's privacy tools." If that's true it means that more than 91 percent of Facebook users don't fall into that category, which strikes me as a pretty impressive statistic that Facebook ought to brag about. It's actually higher than the 85 percent of people who wear seat belts. And I'm proudly one of the "28 percent (that) shared all, or almost all, of their wall posts with an audience wider than just their friends." Being careful not to post information I don't want to share, I post almost everything to the public because I want to. While Facebook can be used to share privately or just to your friends, it can also be a way to share with the public. That's a good thing if that's what you want to do, and if the other statistics are true, then the vast majority of those 28 percent clearly know what they are doing.
Even though its statistics are more positive than the story Consumer Reports tells, I do have questions about what they actually asked. The magazine did not publish the survey instrument, nor would they agree to provide it to me when I asked their publicist. It's very unusual for companies that report on surveys not to provide a full report including a copy of the survey itself. One issue, for example, is the statement "Eleven percent of households using Facebook said they had trouble last year, ranging from someone using their log-in without permission to being harassed or threatened."
But the word "trouble" is vague and it's not at all clear what was in that "range" they're talking about. Also, according to Stanford Graduate School of Business Associate Professor Neil Malhotra, "One of the most commonly documented problems in surveys is acquiescence bias, or the tendency for respondents to simply agree or say yes to the interviewer's question." It's easy, he added "to lead people into saying that privacy is a problem if you simply ask, "Are you concerned about privacy?" It's better to "compare privacy to other concerns to set baselines." For more questions about their methodology, see Stephen Balkam's post here on The Huffington Post.
I would expect Consumer Reports, of all publications, to be completely transparent with its methodology.
There are some things in the Consumer Reports story that people may not know, such as "Facebook collects more than you may imagine." I don't know what people do imagine, but it's true that "Facebook gets a report every time you visit a site with a Facebook "Like" button." But that's also true for the companies that place most ads that appear on web pages or even pages that don't have third party ads. I wish Consumer Reports pointed out how true this is across the web. In fact, your Internet Protocol (IP address) is reported to every site you visit. That was true long before Facebook was founded and it's one of the ways law enforcement catches people who commit online crimes. I can look up the IP address of people who visit my websites, though without a court order it would be nearly impossible in most cases to identify them by name.
As my ConnectSafely.org co-director Anne Collier pointed out in her post at NetFamilyNews, Consumer Reports' nonprofit advocacy arm, Consumer Union, is pushing for stronger privacy laws. While there may be a place for legislation, I agree with Anne that "new laws as solutions all by themselves perpetuates a false dependency."
Always room for more consumer awareness
There is a lot more in this extensive report and much of it is worth considering. We do need to be aware that when we install third party apps, we are sometimes giving them permission to share our information, but we also need to know that Facebook has ways to limit and control that information. And Consumer Reports is absolutely correct that employers, insurers, the IRS, colleges and criminals can see what you post publicly on Facebook and might possibly use it against you. That's important for people to know and it's one of the reasons Anne Collier and I wrote A Parents Guide to Facebook, and why Facebook has extensive privacy controls.
Just as we have learned to use the safety features built into cars, washing machines and garbage disposals, we do need to learn to use Facebook, Google +, Yahoo, email, cell phones and other technologies in ways that help us control our information. It's what we call digital literacy and it's essential knowledge for thriving in the 21st century.