BOSTON – Facebook’s lax privacy policies have been likened to a “death trap” by one critic, a “train wreck” by another and just plain “awfulness” by yet a third. The company has taken our rights and trampled on them, the blogosphere rhetoric goes.
People are angry.
In response to irate users and advocacy groups, Facebook announced this week that it had modified its privacy settings to make it easier for people to control who gets to see their personal information. Most applaud Facebook for making the recent changes, though many feel it still has further to go to safeguard people’s privacy.
But what about the reaction in other countries?
The U.S. is Facebook’s largest market with more than 125 million users, but it’s far from the only country where Facebook is all the rage. According to checkfacebook.com, which tracks the company’s growth, the U.K. is the second biggest market with more than 27 million users, followed by Indonesia with nearly 25 million. Turkey has 22.5 million Facebook users and France has almost 19 million.
Jeffrey Chester, executive director for the Center for Digital Democracy in Washington, said there had been “unusually strong international pressure from policymakers to force Facebook to change.”
He cited a letter from the Article 29 Working Party, a group of influential data protection experts advising the EU, that called Facebook’s default settings “unacceptable” and ordered it to reverse them. In Canada, the government's privacy commissioner also took issue with Facebook.
“The principal reason Facebook made these changes was due to threats from Transatlantic government officials,” Chester wrote by email Friday.
But according to several GlobalPost contributors in locales as disparate as Indonesia, Venezuela and France, what's notable is how little average Facebook users care about the privacy controversy.
In France, if Facebook is making headlines, it’s for helping to organize enormous cocktail parties, several of which have gotten out of hand — notably, in Nantes in early May, one of the 10,000 party-goers fell to his death from a bridge, drunk. GlobalPost’s Mildrade Cherfils reported on a similar party organized in Paris that was squashed by city officials.
People in Venezuela haven’t raised a stink about privacy, though there has been documented concern about criminals using information gathered from Facebook for kidnappings and robberies, as reported in GlobalPost by Charlie Devereux.
In Indonesia, Facebook's privacy woes have received limited attention, despite the social networking site's position as the country's most popular website. Online articles on Facebook's recent privacy setting changes have only received few comments, many of which support the company and its founder Mark Zuckerberg.
One user on the Indonesian-language website of newspaper Kompas, tomazo suryono commented: "The users are getting weirder. How can they post/upload their personal information on facebook and hope FB can completely close it off... for what??? If you don't want to share, write it down in your diary or journal or whatever, store it in your cupboard, lock it padlock it... done..."
Diarmuid Hallinan, assistant commissioner at the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner in Ireland, wrote by email Friday that “[w]hile there has been a reasonable amount of media coverage of Facebook's privacy controls in our national media we have not received any complaints from users in this jurisdiction.”
So, why the lack of concern? Is it that people abroad don’t put the same premium on privacy that Americans do?
A Daily Beast column entitled “Why India Loves Facebook” suggests as much. India and Facebook are a match made in heaven, Tunku Varadarajan argues, precisely because India is a country in which “being all up in one another's business is practically a birthright.”
Facebook users in many countries routinely leave complete personal information, including phone numbers, addresses and photos, publicly available to non-friends on their profile pages. Friend requests from complete strangers are commonplace.
“When it comes to Facebook … people seem not to care that much, and, more importantly, they are not aware of the extent to which Facebook uses user information,” said Miyase Christensen, a professor of media and communication studies at Karlstad University in Sweden.
“[T]he Facebook privacy issue is not causing a major public uproar in Turkey as it is in the U.S. or Canada for example. At least, for now. I think it has to do with the fact that the U.S. has a more established grassroots advocacy network when it comes to the question of privacy. Online privacy is a relatively new question in Turkey and therefore there aren't as many civil society organization and groups addressing this question,” she wrote by email Friday.
In Venezuela, though, where 6 million out of 9 million internet users are on Facebook, people tend seem to accept the invasion of privacy and choose to regulate their own output of information, according to Carlos Jimenez of Tendencias Digitales, which compiles internet data in Venezuela.
"How do people protect themselves? Instead of asking for policy changes what lots of people do is not put out too much information. That's the way people protect themselves here — by trying to put the least amount of information on their profile,” said Jimenez.
Sree Sreenivasan, professor of digital journalism at Columbia Journalism School, said that, by and large, he has been overwhelmed at how, even in the U.S., so few people care about the invasion of their privacy.
“Privacy is no longer the social norm,” he said. “Most people don’t care.” They might care in theory, but depending on their age, demographic and what they do, that level of care varies – something he attributed to people not fully grasping the issue.
Sreenivasan said he has curtailed his own use of social media in response to privacy concerns, but that he hasn’t met “one person upset enough to do something about it. … It’s a problem.”
“It should be the cover of TIME magazine ... It should be the lead item on the evening news: what the new Facebook has done to privacy.”
Aubrey Belford, Charlie Devereux and Mildrade Cherfils contributed to this report.
Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the spelling of a name.