Facebook Continues to Face the Privacy Music, No Matter What It Says

Even though I've excerpted portions of it here, do I ever have a must-read for you: the Q&A posted yesterday between Elliott Schrage, Facebook's vice president for public policy, and readers of The New York Times, who submitted questions to him via the paper's Bits blog over the course of the last week. It's an eye-opening look at the current disconnect between consumers and Facebook, which seems to have reached its apex with Facebook's recently announced instant personalization features.

But before I continue, it's not just Schrage's answers to questions surrounding Facebook's new privacy policies that are worth reading. If anything, it's the 93-and-counting comments that follow Schrage's answers that provide the real insight -- and it's not a particularly happy one. As one commenter puts it:  "Asking Facebook's privacy dude about privacy is a more pointless exercise than asking Goldman if they are greedy..."

Like it or not, Facebook has lost trust between itself and many of its users. The commenters' complaints have three broad themes:

1.  That despite Schrage's protestations -- and evidence -- to the contrary, the company is selling user data to advertisers.

2.  That a basic assumption the company makes about its users' motives on Facebook is fundamentally flawed: namely, that people actually want to connect with people they don't already know quite well. One comment, which has since been recommended by 71 other people, shouts: "You [Facebook] may THINK you know why I come to Facebook and you have assumed TOO MUCH. I come to share and interact with specific people that I already know. DID YOU HEAR THAT? SPECIFIC PEOPLE THAT I ALREADY KNOW. I do not want ANY information revealed to strangers by default."

3.  That (and to me, this was Schrage's biggest misstep, among a number of them), everything on Facebook is not opt-in. When Schrage said: "Everything is opt-in on Facebook. Participating in the service is a choice," what he didn't take into account is that the shifting sands of privacy on the service often make it quite the opposite. If you signed up for Facebook even a few months ago, it is not the service you agreed to participate in -- and that makes changing your privacy settings, since sharing with everyone is the default -- inherently opt-out. (Many readers picked up on this.) 

Of course, Facebook complaints are practically as old as Facebook. But having watched Facebook through many controversies,  to me this time seems different, partly because of where the issues are originating. People deep in the industry are starting to question Facebook, with some deactivating their accounts. The Electronic Frontier Foundation's "Facebook's Eroding Privacy Policy: A Timeline" has been passed along repeatedly all week. Naturally, someone has given birth to a Facebook Protest (if you're interested, don't log on during June 6th).

And then there's this quite fascinating story, also in The New York Times, about the four New York University students trying to build something called Diaspora*, a social network -- in part a reaction to Facebook -- that will give users complete control over their information. The story explains that the fledgling service's creators gave themselves 39 days to raise $10,000. They did it in 12, with minimal donations from people they knew. "We were shocked," one of its founders told the Times. "For some strange reason, everyone just agreed with this whole privacy thing."

One thing that struck me about the Diaspora* story is what wasn't in it: an idea for how, or if, it would make money. Per usual, the plan is to make the code free to everyone and let other programmers build on it. But it got me to thinking...

When you read all of these user comments about Facebook, you can't help but notice that part of the anger comes from a sense of violation a lot of people have, which extends beyond privacy. Folks love Facebook, but now they feel a little tentative about using it. Maybe it's time for Facebook to build a subscription model, for users who love it as a way to connect and reconnect with people they've cared about in their lives -- but don't want their data used to serve ads or to make it out to the broader Web. For people who value Facebook, but don't like the current approach to privacy, this might be a fair trade.

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5 comments about "Facebook Continues to Face the Privacy Music, No Matter What It Says".
  1. Jon-Mikel Bailey from Wood Street, Inc. , May 12, 2010 at 5:09 p.m.

    In an attempt to revolutionize the way we use the web, Facebook has managed to alienate its users. Don't bite the hand that feeds you. I think Zuckerberg [funny, when I checked the spell check for his name just now Bloodsucker was an option] forgets that its the users that make his little college project the successful juggernaut that it is today.

  2. Rick Graf from Graf Advertising , May 12, 2010 at 5:33 p.m.

    I think the subscription model has merit, though many will likely scream about having to pay for the service and stop using Facebook. It wouldn't be very difficult or expensive to send a survey to members to find out.

  3. Christopher Ng from DBS , May 13, 2010 at midnight

    Whilst I completely agree with the privacy bloc argument, I think Facebook management may be acutely aware that most of its 400m active users wouldn't actually act on the privacy concerns. Not until a viable alternative comes along anyway. For example, Windows, despite its low ratings, still hangs on to over 80% of the OS market. Facebook is in that same position currently, and as it extends its social plugin reach across the 100,000+ sites, what's to stop them?

  4. Ron Ladouceur , May 18, 2010 at 12:48 p.m.

    Sadly, Facebook seems to be following the time-honored marketing tradition of creating an insecurity, driving an addiction and then profiting from the need. Smokers were sold “cool” and now pay $10 a pack, credit and debit card holders were sold “cache” and now pay $40 overdraft fees, Facebook users were sold “friendship” and now have to opt-out if they don't want to expose their personal bits.

    Maybe, as Christopher Ng suggests, Zuckerberg and company are hoping that their users will behave like Windows users, complain but ultimately concede to a reality of limited options. But has Facebook really achieved that level of lock-in? The Diaspora guys showed the tool can be pretty easily cloned. Will we allow Facebook to profit from our friendship addiction if using it begins to make us feel as dirty as that smoker huddled by the dumpster?

  5. Christina Ricucci from Millenia 3 Communications , May 18, 2010 at 6:09 p.m.

    You can always do what my sister does... about every other month she re-activates her Facebook account, usually in response to a call or note from a family member who has posted something specific they want her to see. She does her thing, connects with whoever she needs to connect with, and then immediately de-activates again. She tells me that the whole point of why she joined -- to stay in touch with family & friends that SHE KNOWS -- was out of control within just weeks of joining and this is the only way she can continue to have any part of the Facebook universe.