Privacy matters

Facebook, once a small, "free" social networking site for university undergraduates to share personal information, has become a vast subdivision on the information super highway.

It is expected soon to reach a landmark figure of 500 million registered users.

Its value is put at about $20 billion and it is at the vanguard of the social networking revolution, having outlasted several other variations on the theme, notably MySpace and Bebo.

It has taken the concept further than was dreamed possible a mere six years ago when it was established by 20-year-old university student Mark Zuckerberg - to the extent that users today often appear to inhabit a different and somewhat parallel universe to their non-wired counterparts.

But some facts transcend universes, and it is only now beginning to dawn on Facebook habitues that a truly free networking site might be closer to wishful thinking than reality: even in the utopian realms of the Internet there is, it seems, no such thing as a free lunch.

This much has become loudly apparent of late with the airing of concerns about Facebook's privacy settings.

On Monday this week - "Quit Facebook Day" - Canadian campaigners urged people worldwide to remove themselves from the site.

They, and many others, were riled about the way in which they felt their privacy was being purloined for profit.

Quite why they should have been so surprised is another matter: you do not pay upfront to belong to Facebook, but the company must make ends meet - and a tidy profit - somehow.

That "somehow" is no great secret.

The site sells advertising to companies tailored to the defined demographics of its users.

The "footprint" they create in their Facebook activities is like gold to advertisers and marketers who will pay accordingly.

Just as it is naive for users who are careless with their basic settings - for instance, as to who can access or "participate" on their page - it is equally artless to be disconcerted that information about them is harvested, packaged and used for commercial ends.

There is substance, however, to the complaint that, at least until last week when Mr Zuckerberg called a press conference to announce new policies, the privacy settings on the site were so complex and convoluted they required more than average persistence and determination to understand and amend.