Facebook Puts Your Privacy on Parade

Once again Facebook is involved in a privacy imbroglio, and once again it's because boy-founder Mark Zuckerberg opened his yap and stuck his Keds-clad foot inside.

Once again Facebook is involved in a privacy imbroglio, and once again it's because boy-founder Mark Zuckerberg opened his yap and stuck his Keds-clad foot inside.

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Last week at The Crunchies, the annual awards party thrown by TechCrunch doyenne Michael Arrington, Zuckerberg got on stage briefly and made the following statement (per Gawker):

When I got started in my dorm room at Harvard, the question a lot of people asked was "why would I want to put any information on the Internet at all? Why would I want to have a website?"

And then in the last 5 or 6 years, blogging has taken off in a huge way and all these different services that have people sharing all this information. People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that's evolved over time.

We view it as our role in the system to constantly be innovating and be updating what our system is to reflect what the current social norms are.

So now, a lot of companies would be trapped by the conventions and their legacies of what they've built, doing a privacy change for 350 million users is not the type of thing that a lot of companies would do. But we viewed that as a really important thing, to always keep a beginner's mind and think: what would we do if we were starting the company now, and starting the site now, and we decided that these would be the social norms now and we just went for it.

Allow me to translate. By "innovating and updating" his system, Zuckerberg means the modifications to user privacy settings Facebook unveiled a few weeks ago that made Facebookers' information more easily accessible by Google et al. by default. And by "current social norms," Zuckerberg means "stuff we think we can get away with today that we couldn't get away with three or four years ago."

Interestingly, after Facebook's default settings changed, Zuckerberg's personal profile went from being virtually inaccessible (unless you were the CEO's friend) to nearly wide open, allowing any Facebooker to view the 290 photos he'd posted. These included several of Zucky the Party Animal (the worst of which Gawker happily scooped up and republished). A couple of days later those photos were mysteriously inaccessible again.

So much for social norms.

After those changes, 10 privacy groups banded together and filed a protest with the FTC about Facebooks' sudden open-book privacy policy. In response, Facebook also made a few small tweaks to restore some (but not all) of its previous privacy settings.

Zuckerberg's comments last week just re-ignited the Facebook privacy debate, including the inevitable responses from knuckleheads like Arrington "that privacy is already really, really dead....we don't really care about privacy anymore. And Facebook is just giving us exactly what we want."

(There is, however, no truth to the rumor that Zuckerberg is planning to publish nude pix of himself on his profile as part of Facebook's new "bare it and share it" campaign.)

It's almost always the case that people who like to say "privacy is dead, get over it," a) have a financial interest in buying and selling personal information, and b) guard their own personal information zealously, even if they live otherwise very public lives.

For example: I'm still waiting for Arrington to share his Social Security number with the world, like the Lifelock CEO he seems to like so much, or post pix from his vacation at that nudist colony (I'm making that last bit up -- I hope). Even if he did, that doesn't mean other people should.

People may not give a damn about some kinds of personal information, but they care a great deal about other information. The stuff they care about just varies from person to person.

In fact, it's usually the most public of us that have the greatest need for privacy. Exotic dancers may take their clothes off in public (or on MySpace), but they don't usually use their real names or broadcast their home address. Their bodies may be public, but not their identities.

Likewise, just because women shared their bra colors on Facebook to raise awareness of breast cancer doesn't mean they want to share that information with the marketers at Victoria's Secrets. (Facebook is not explicitly doing this, but opening up people's status updates to searches makes that possible.)

I think people want the ability to easily control what information is and isn't private. While Facebook offers a lot of control -- you might even say a confusing amount for most people -- it's still doing its best to encourage you to share early and often.

If you can't easily determine how someone wants a particular piece of information to be treated, you should assume it is private, not that they want to share it with the world. The latter is the assumption Facebook is making and Zuckerberg was defending.

What people really want is not what Facebook is giving us. As Read Write Web's Marshall Fitzpatrick points out, Facebook's popularity stems in part from how carefully it protected its members' information -- at first limiting access to college students, then just to your networks of friends. Now it seems to have forgotten all of that, to its detriment.

Why? In a word, money. You can't easily monetize data that's private. The more data you can share with the world, the more revenue you can generate. Facebook isn't trying to give users what they want or to conform with "social norms." It's trying to make a buck out of each and every one of its 350 million users, over and over again. Nothing wrong with that, except perhaps how you go about it.

Do you care about privacy? Has a "personal information leak" online ever come back to haunt you? E-mail me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This story, "Facebook puts your privacy on parade," was originally published at InfoWorld.com.

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