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Facebook Places Privacy First

Instead of stepping haplessly into yet another privacy quagmire, Facebook came with guides and a map to avoid problems.
The company also addressed one of the EFF's concerns by affirming that it supports strong legal protection for location data, specifically a search warrant for past data and a wiretap order for future monitoring of a user's location.

Facebook's awareness of privacy pitfalls was heightened following the Beacon debacle of 2007, but the company's ongoing struggles to get users and observers to accept recent innovations like its privacy options overhaul have continued to suggest that the company isn't really interested in making privacy a priority.

That era may have ended. Justin Brookman, senior fellow at the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) , says that the privacy controversies that buffeted the company following its foray into personalization and the introduction of its "Like" button hit the company hard.

"At that time, they really internalized the criticism they were getting from all directions," he said in a phone interview. "That's when the 'Facebook is evil' meme was getting out there."

Brookman suggests that the beating the company took in the press and the blogosphere in May was the company's road-to-Damacus moment, awakening the company's leadership to a need for a new approach. "I think they definitely did a better job dealing with privacy than they have historically," he said of the Places launch.

That job entailed reaching out to groups like the CDT in advance of the launch of Places to make sure privacy concerns were addressed. To make sure its outreach was noticed, the company included contact information for a variety of privacy groups in its rebuttal of the ACLU's claims.

Facebook's more attentive consideration of privacy issues can be attributed both to past mistakes and to the current political environment. "There's more regulatory attention to privacy issues these days," observed Brookman.

So perhaps Facebook's realization that it needs to get out ahead of privacy issues is also the product of a road-to-Washington moment, a revelation that attention to privacy now may prevent the creation of ruinous privacy rules in the future.

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Mary E. Shacklett, President of Transworld Data
James M. Connolly, Contributing Editor and Writer