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The issue of Digital Identities won’t go away

December 11th, 2009 by Graham Attwell

Last week I welcomed Facrebook’s announcement of new fine grained access controls which they claimed would allow users to decide what and iwth whom they wished to share.

On Wednesday they started rolling out the new interface pushing an “important message” to all users:

“We’re making some changes to give you more control of your information and help you stay connected. We’ve simplified the Privacy page and added the ability to set privacy on everything you share, from status updates to photos.

At the same time, we’re helping everyone find and connect with each other by keeping some information—like your name and profile picture—publicly available.”

The new controls are far from simple. And after an hour playing with them it appears they provide far less potential privacy than the original settings. Name, profile picture and as far as I can see your personal wall is set to public and cannot be hidden. So what is behind this? Is Facebook really concerned to protect privacy. It seems a bit too much of a coincidence that the new settings were launched a week or so after the announcement of deals with Google and Microsoft to provide Facebook data for real time search (just an aside – what is the value of real time search – I don’t get that one).

I might be paranoid but I suspect the real point of the new controls is to make sure data is available to the search engines, rather than allowing users more control over their own data. In the discussion over the new settings in the Guardian yesterday, some commentators asked why so much fuss given that it was a free service. Well firstly is Facebook really free. We provide our data which makes the site valuable for advertisers who pay Facebook. That doesn’t sound so free to me.

The question of  access controls will not go away. Digital identities are becoming increasingly important especially for young people. A couple of weeks ago a Romanian CEO of an advertising agency said in a confernce I was at that he would not hire anyone who did not have a good digital identity. Our on line identities are fast replacing the traditional Curriculum Vitae. We have a situation where the main spaces young epopel use to meet. communicate and share their lives together are controlled by private companies who are claiming ownership of our data. That is not a minor issue. OK – we can delete our accounts (although then Facebook still retains the data). But young people are not going to do this. Regulation is probably the only answer, although it is hard to regulate international platform providers. And of course, education on not just digital safety but education about the importance of digital identities and how to develop and manage them.

In my next post I will post a report for the EU ICONET project on a great course developed at Salford University and looking at digital media and identities.

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