Sep 28, 2011

[Social Networks] Problems With Facebook's Cookies

I've had an odd love-hate relationship with Facebook's social plugins over the years, mainly because of the many changes that have been made to the site and the resulting impact this has on Facebook's perceived privacy approach. I'm not talking about their official privacy policy or anything like that - this is more about how the rest of the world receives such changes and determines the impact on everyone's life.

A great example of this is probably Facebook's Like button. At first, I was pretty wary about it given it was designed to report back your browsing activity on different sites to Facebook for the purposes of showing you which of your friends have liked the same article and so on. At first I would only browse Facebook using Chrome's Incognito mode, in order to keep my browsing secure from the Facebook cookie reporting. And then eventually I weaned off this as adoption became greater and I decided to gamble on Facebook to see where these plugins might lead to.

Then I took the next step and actually created a Facebook Like page for the Geeky Guide to "promote the brand" and also try to foster a community between Geeky Guide readers. It's been a fun experiment for sure and I now have about 150+ fans who publicly support the site, which is cool.

But then increased scrutiny of Facebook's privacy practices have been the talk of the talk recently starting with their big revamp of the News Feed to include the Ticker and the option for site owners to push content to people's Ticker streams without explicitly consent and of course the more recent Facebook cookie tracking snafu where Facebook's cookies continue to report on your site usage even when logged out of Facebook.

That really felt like taking things a step too far for me, While I respect the site's efforts to truly personalize my browsing experience by leveraging the interests of my friends as much as possible, this is not the way to do it. And given I've tried out the analytics features of Facebook's Like Pages as well, I can see how they're trying to provide brand managers valuable information like Share and Like rates for individual pieces of content along with click-through rates for posts when shared on Facebook. While this is valuable information for any website owner, the methodology of collecting this data and how it is being sent back to Facebook without the user's knowledge and consent is a bit jarring. This is especially disturbing once more and more sites try to leverage these social connections to push content to user's Tickets and News Feeds without explicit permission.

While Facebook as quickly responded by destroying the offending cookies in an update, the core issue remains that Facebook is still poised to try and leverage your site activities in order to provide a "better" experience for users. But if the new "Top Stories" algorithm is any indication, simply looking at what all your contacts are doing doesn't automatically translate into relevant content. From personal experience, I tend to unmark more than 80% of Facebook's automatically identified "Top Stories" as irrelevant with about 15% of the remaining stories being my own posts and the other 5% coming from my partner. Brilliant, right?

In response to all this, I am now weighing shutting down the Geeky Guide's Like Page and just continue to focus on generating great geeky content for you guys. I had previously removed the per-post Like buttons due to page load delays so that's already out of the way. But now I'm left with the Like widget in the sidebar (as captured in the above screenshot). I'll still share interesting links on my Facebook, Twitter and Google+ pages, but this will probably be no longer directly tied to the site's efforts but will just be coming from me as an individual geek shouting out to the world. To make a clean break, I'll kill the connection no later than September 30, which is the end of the month.

If you're feeling similarly concerned about what Facebook's cookies might be sending back to them, you can opt to use Chrome Extensions like Disconnect Facebook and of course Disconnect or the equivalents for your browser. You can also start using your browser's privacy mode such as Chrome's Incognito mode when using Facebook in order to separate it from the rest of your surfing habits.

Then again, there's the "ultimate sanction" of deleting your Facebook account entirely, an option that I admit I'm also considering.

So what do you think of all this? Are we just being overly paranoid about our data and should instead embrace a more open internet as Facebook seems to advocate? Do I seem hypocritical when I criticize Facebook and yet support Google so much? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
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  1. Had it not been for this post, I wouldn't have been informed about Facebook's shrewd cookies.
    I'm sure that not much people are aware about this as well.
    Thanks for the heads up. :D

  2. Glad to have helped out - I kind of figured that not everyone might have been aware of the issue. As of this point, I've disabled all Facebook plugins on the Geeky Guide and I'm shutting down the Like page this Friday.

    Also, I now have Disconnect Facebook installed on all my browsers.