Maybe Facebook should send a bouquet of flowers to its apologists

Well if you read any kind of tech news you have probably already heard about the newest gaff committed by Facebook and other social media networks like MySpace and Twitter that was reported by the Wall Street Journal late yesterday. You have also more than likely been inundated by all kinds of posts that regurgitated the news along with a few that basically called this much ado about nothing.

Principally two major tech blogs, ReadWriteWeb and GigaOM, both had posts that while not overtly defending Facebook or the other implicated social networks did everything they could to downplay the whole affair.

Mathew Ingram at GigaOM writes in part

In some cases, Facebook seems to have accidentally included user IDs in the URL string when someone clicked on an ad, and according to the Journal has now changed the way it handles those links as a result of the paper’s inquiries.

Despite the scare-mongering from some sites about Facebook “selling your identity to advertisers,” on a scale of 1-10 privacy-wise, this is probably around a 1 or 2 — and it’s not unique to Facebook, either (MySpace uses the same method, according to the Journal).

Marshall Kirkpatrick at ReadWriteWeb, who has been a vocal opponent of Facebook’s ever changing privacy policy, had this to say

It’s just incredible. Go read it for yourself. Or don’t. The tone of the article implies that some major scandal has been broken wide open. To be fair, some other people we’ve spoken with tonight agree with the Journal’s assessment of the situation. This sure reads like anti-technology fear-mongering to me though, and I’ve been one of Facebook’s very loudest critics regarding privacy. Related but perhaps less surprising coverage of the Journal’s story comes from Gawker, with the over-the-top headline Facebook Secretly Sold Your Identity to Advertisers. Hello, pageviews!

Now just to be clear this incident really does rate pretty low down on the privacy transgression scale and on that fact I agree with Mathew. As well I agree with Marshall that this has been overblown – to an extent.

However this isn’t a non-story and shouldn’t be treated as such. Sure Facebook has stated that they have fixed the problem but it is a problem that shouldn’t have happened in the first place regardless of the fact that this is how the Internet works as other apologists have stated.

Yes referrer URLs are meant to be used to transport some information within their structure but they are not suppose to be displaying any identifiable information. When this does happen it is ofter referred to as passing information in clear text and you ask any security expert about this and they will tell you that this is a big no-no that any web coder learns from day one – unless of course it is intended.

It doesn’t matter if this is a low priority incident on the social media networks part as Mathew suggests the thing is that it shouldn’t have happened in the first place. Facebook, and others, like to make a big deal about how they never share any kind of personally identifiable information with third parties – especially advertisers. Yet here we have one of the most fundamental rules of web coding being flaunted like it means nothing.

Sure Facebook might be under a microscope that has everyone examining everything they do down to the most minute of details. Well I’m sorry but they deserve it. They have put themselves in this position and I feel absolutely no sympathy for their position.

We should not be making any apologies of any kind for Facebook or any of the other social media networks. They are asking us to trust them with all our information so that gives us every right to expect that they will respect and honor that trust. Unfortunately they continually prove to be doing otherwise even with the smallest and seemingly insignificant things like sharing our IDs in referring URLs.

Trust in others, whether they be people or companies, is the most important thing we can give. At some point though when that trust is abused beyond our breaking point no amount of fun games is going to restore that broken trust.

Yes this might have been a small matter to some but when added on top of all the other abuses even the small ones can seem bigger. When that happens we all begin to feel like we’ve been to see the proctologist and it isn’t a good feeling. A feeling that no amount of minimizing will change.