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SOIS Professor Makes Guest Appearance on NPR

 On Monday, January 4th, 2010, School of Information Studies (SOIS) assistant professor Michael Zimmer was part of National Public Radio (NPR)’s regular program Morning Edition. Zimmer, who is also an associate at the Center for Information Policy Research (CIPR), was the guest of reporter Martin Kaste in a news story concerning privacy groups asking the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to examine the practices of Facebook.

The debate revolves around recent changes made by Facebook to the privacy settings for its users. The changes specifically apply to the visibility of users’ friend lists. As Zimmer points out, while Facebook is giving more options for the user, the social networking site has actually made it more difficult for users to change their settings. “The challenge is that sometimes, it looks like you're sitting in the cockpit of a 747,” Zimmer said in the interview concerning the usability of those settings.

Zimmer believes that Facebook is playing with fire by changing their privacy controls. “This is their [Facebook’s] Microsoft moment,” said Zimmer, referring to Microsoft Corporation’s reputation for dubious practices. In his blog – michaelzimmer.org – he points out that not only has Facebook made it more difficult to change their manual settings, but “Facebook still considers your friends list ‘publicly available,’ and therefore it will always be visible to third-party applications.”

According to Zimmer, the controversy probably could have been avoided. “It started off positive when they announced that they were taking steps to prompt users to look at their privacy settings” he noted, “which is something I think all businesses should do.” Zimmer believes that all users should re-examine their privacy settings at least once every six months, but admits that probably only ten percent of the internet-using population does.

Another thing that many Facebook users don’t realize is that the platform is a money-making enterprise. Even if users block other users from seeing their private information, Facebook still has access to it, and they use it to help target advertising. “It’s one big advertising platform,” says Zimmer. Included in the control of their personal information are the popular third-party applications – like Farmville or MafiaWars, for instance – which users accept and install.

Since Facebook announced the changes in mid-December, the blogosphere has been abuzz with ire over Facebook’s decision. As a specialist in information policy, Zimmer has been leading the charge. Long familiar with contemporary internet media giants like Google, Facebook and MySpace, he feels comfortable as an educator in the subject. “It’s my role. That’s why I teach, that’s why I write, and that’s why I blog about it,” he said.

Zimmer has also been featured on WUWM’s program Lake Effect as well as more recently on American Public Radio’s Future Tense. For the past two years, he has also organized UWM’s commemoration of OneWebDay, a day dedicated to the internet and its role in society.  

With over 350 million users, Facebook has become a household name around the world – what Zimmer refers to as the “de facto platform” for information sharing – but this is not the first time that it has gotten into some hot-water. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, which has much more stringent privacy laws than the United States, recently threatened to ban Facebook unless it revisit its policy towards privacy.

Despite this Zimmer says that Facebook is doing good things. “I use it,” he admits, “but my role is to keep them on their toes.”

To listen to the interview, please follow the link below:

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