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Privacy issues over Facebook Groups

If Facebook had a last name it would definitely be Controversy. Its revamped Groups feature, released a few weeks ago, has spawned a new wave of outcry from users and privacy advocates alike.

Practically all features of Facebook are under scrutiny – from the “Like” option, to photo tagging, to third party apps, etc. Just recently, U.S. legislators demanded an explanation from company CEO Mark Zuckerberg over reports that Facebook’s most popular applications are sharing users’ information to advertising companies.

And then there’s Facebook Groups. Many can’t still wrap their heads around the fact that this feature can actually be anything other than a privacy nightmare.

“The Groups feature allows Facebook users to carry on semiprivate conversations with (as Facebook advertises them) ‘small groups of friends.’ Facebook promoted this as a privacy feature but, depending on how it’s used, Groups can also jeopardize privacy… what starts out as a small group can quickly mushroom into a large one, and it’s quite possible that the group could contain members who are not your friends or even friends of the person who created the group,” tech journalist Larry Magid wrote on Huffington Post.

What’s the main beef with Facebook Groups? Anyone in your Facebook contact list can add you to any group, and you remain a member of that group unless you remove yourself.

So, that’s it. You can opt out. If someone adds you to a group with a rather embarrassing orientation, hold off your hysterics first and with all the calmness you could muster, go to the group then click “Leave Group” which is located on the right hand side of your screen. Check out Facebook Groups 101.

That happened to Zuckerberg himself. Technology blogger Michael Arrington added—in jest—Zuckerberg to a group named NAMBLA (which apparently means North American Man/Boy Love Association).

Wrote Arrington on TechCrunch: “He’s my Facebook friend. I therefore have the right to add him.”

As soon as Zuckerberg got wind of being added to NAMBLA, he quickly removed himself. He then commented on the “Michael Arrington added Mark Zuckerberg to the group” post which appeared on the NAMBLA group page: “This is why it’s easy to leave groups”.

Arrington wrote on TechCrunch, almost wistfully: “As soon as Zuckerberg unsubscribed I lost the ability to add him to any further groups at all, another protection against spamming and pranks.”

Unlike Zuckerberg and Arrington who obviously took being added to the NAMBLA group in stride, Mahalo founder Jason Calacanis threatened to slap with a lawsuit anyone who dares add him to groups with unsavory reputation.

What Facebook Groups are for

Ironically, Facebook Groups are actually meant to “give users more control” over what they share on the social networking site.  At least that’s according to Zuckerberg himself.

“We set out to build a solution that could help you map out all of your communities that would be simple enough that everyone would use it and that would be deeply integrated across Facebook and applications so you can communicate with your different groups in lots of different ways,” Zuckerberg explains.

Moreover, if you’re a businessman looking to leverage Facebook Groups to build your brand, you can make Facebook Groups work to your advantage.  Check out this post by David Armano, senior vice president of global communications firm, Edelman Digital.

There are three types of Facebook Groups: Open, Closed and Secret.  Open Groups allow everyone to see the membership list and everything that is posted on the page. With Closed Groups (actually the default setting), the membership list is visible to the public but the actual content can only be viewed by the members themselves. Secret Groups only allow members to view anything.

As a member of any group, you will receive email notifications whenever a member posts anything on the page. You can spare your inbox from these messages by clicking on “Edit Settings” located at the upper right hand side of the group’s page and turning off the option.

A two-edged sword

As what the Zuckerberg incident shows, the problem with Facebook Groups is that you have to manually remove your name from a group or else you will remain part of it until the group ceases to exist.

Unlike Zuckerberg, however, who was able to remove himself from the NAMBLA group within an hour of being added, not all users have the luxury of time to periodically check Facebook just to monitor the kind of groups their friends are adding them to.

Unfortunately, Facebook doesn’t think that’s their problem. “What privacy? Web privacy is an oxymoron!” Facebook supporters would tell you. The moment you sign up with any social networking site out there, you agree to their terms and conditions or ever-changing “privacy policies” which can be confusing.

So probably the onus lies on carefully choosing who you befriend on Facebook in the first place, and making it a point to tell your friends that you don’t want to be added to any group without permission.  While you’re at it, better check your privacy settings and make sure that you only share information that you want to be shared.

You could limit your friends to just your family and close associates. If there’s still a problem with that, just delete all your friends altogether. Of course, if you have zero friends, nobody would add you to any group except yourself, right?

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