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Facebook IPO doesn't mean the end of privacy

Privacy experts say that just because the company is going public, doesn't mean that it's game over for user privacy. In fact, it might shine a brighter light on privacy concerns.

Facebook's current privacy settings landing page.
Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

Despite the sometimes-rocky history between Facebook users and the social network's privacy policy, experts have not gone Cassandra on a post-Facebook IPO world.

"The biggest change in the IPO will be the consistent pressure on revenues," said Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy at the Center for Democracy and Technology. His sentiment is echoed by other analysts at privacy organizations that have criticized Facebook in the past. How that focus on revenue will affect Facebook's approach to user privacy is less certain.

"Most of the changes in the recent policy update were semantic and clarification, which is good because they're better reflecting what they're doing. The fact that they're going public and going to be a public company could enforce trust," noted Chris Conley, technology and civil liberties policy attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. "They're going to have to keep the trust of their users," or risk losing money, he added.

The challenge in maintaining the level of trust required to keep people on Facebook won't be an easy path for the company because it's charting a course into unknown territory, explained Trevor Hughes, president and CEO of the International Association of Privacy Professionals, a New Hampshire-based group that bills itself as the world's largest privacy organization, claiming more than 10,500 members across 70 countries.

"It's not that Facebook is doing something wrong," Hughes said, "But social media is at the heart of the information economy, and Facebook is all about sharing data. As much as that delights us, and we become avid users of social media platforms, it's challenging our social norms."

For one thing, Facebook's expectation of what people want to share has changed. "The assumption in 2004 was that people wanted to be private, and would set things to public. Now, Facebook assumes that all activity will be public," said Sarah A. Downey, online privacy analyst at Abine.

The company faces its own challenges, too. In its privacy policy update from last week, "the changes were largely superficial, but what happened was that they clarified what they were already doing," said Rainey Reitman, the Electronic Frontier Foundation's activism director. "What we're seeing now is backlash because of how that data was being used by Facebook. Even though it's not new, people are now realizing that they're not comfortable with how the data was being used by Facebook."

Besides a heightened awareness of Facebook's policies and adjusting timeline settings according to personal preference, there's not much that people can do on their own, Downey said. "Facebook has been the master of little changes," she said. While the majority of the changes in the recent policy update were clarifications, she added that, "the whole thing shows expanded use of your data."

It appears, though, that merely using the data in ways not previously authorized does not instantly cause people to run from Facebook. While some people abandoned the social photography-sharing app Instagram after Facebook bought it, it also gained Android users at a shocking clip.

Facebook won't soon face a mass exodus tied to its privacy policies, Reitman said. "If it was going to happen, we would've seen it in 2009 or 2010 when the changes were substantial and the user experience was changed. You get bigger user backlash to an extent when the changes are more noticeable."

The CDT's Brookman agreed that user privacy is not coming to an end after the IPO. "There's more pressure because of earnings to push the boundaries a little bit, but they're also under more scrutiny from the European commissions and Irish government," he said.

"We need to recognize that Facebook is sod-busting here," the IAPP's Hughes added. "They're breaking new ground when it comes to how we use data and how they use data. The answers are not in front of them. We have to applaud some of their people for working aggressively on privacy."

While it may not be clear yet how the company intends to use the data about yourself that you've shared with it -- beyond the broad concept of "to make money" -- Facebook will continue to drive the conversation on sharing and privacy as much as it is affected by it.