Privacy Police

Facebook’s Wonky Privacy Controls Now Outing LGBT Youth Without Their Consent

"I remember I was miserable and said, Facebook decided to tell my dad that I was gay."
facebook privacy1 Facebooks Wonky Privacy Controls Now Outing LGBT Youth Without Their Consent

(Photo: Smedio)

Whenever Facebook is taken to task for its complicated yet miraculously ineffective privacy settings, its canned response typically amounts to, “We’re working to make our privacy settings as nuanced as possible.” But this statement, and the concept that Facebook cares about its users’ privacy, is almost antithetical to the actual business of Facebook–mainly, that it makes its money off of users using their real names and lax privacy settings.

As the Wall Street Journal puts it, “The company says its commitment to ‘real names’ makes the site safer for users. It is also at the core of the service they sell to advertisers, namely, access to the real you.”

The Journal reports that Facebook’s privacy settings surrounding groups recently led to the outing of two gay students at UT Austin. When the president of the Queer Chorus added two of its members into the chorus Facebook group, Facebook automatically notified the friends of these members–including their fathers, who did not yet know they were gay.

Writes the Journal:

 When he added Ms. Duncan, which didn’t require her prior online consent, Facebook posted a note to her all friends, including her father, telling them that she had joined the Queer Chorus.

When Mr. Acosta pushed the button, Facebook allowed him to override the intent of the individual privacy settings Ms. Duncan and Mr. McCormick had used to hide posts from their fathers. Facebook’s online help center explains that open groups, as well as closed groups, are visible to the public and will publish notification to users’ friends. But Facebook doesn’t allow users to approve before a friend adds them to a group, or to hide their addition from friends.

After inquiries from the Journal, Facebook updated its Help Center language to clarify this issue, but the damage to these two UT Austin students had already been done. “I remember I was miserable and said, Facebook decided to tell my dad that I was gay,” one said.

Facebook’s privacy controls are especially interesting in this light, as the two students did follow the company’s rules to keeping their profiles private, but their secrets were exposed anyway.

Suddenly, that whole private messaging scandal seems like child’s play.

Follow Jessica Roy on Twitter or via RSS. jroy@observer.com