Zuckerberg 'Doesn't Believe In' Privacy -- But FTC Might

It's safe to say that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is no privacy advocate.

If his public pronouncements about privacy didn't convince people of that, then certainly the company's recent decisions to share users' names, photos, friend lists, etc. with three partners -- Yelp, Pandora and Microsoft Docs -- should. Even Facebook employees perceive their boss as uninterested in privacy. One went so far as to tellNew York Times reporter Nick Bilton that Zuckerberg "doesn't believe in" privacy.

But whether Zuckerberg respects users' privacy or not, he operates in a country where the law -- at least to some extent -- protects consumers' data.

In fact, one reason why Facebook's Beacon program caused the social networking site so many legal headaches was that a federal statute -- the Video Privacy Protection Act -- specifically bars companies from releasing information about users' movie rentals and assesses damages at $2,500 per incident. At launch, Blockbuster participated in Beacon, which told Facebook members about their friends' e-commerce activity at other sites. The result was that people's movie rentals were broadcast to their friends by default -- which arguably violates the federal video privacy law.

Facebook was sued for Beacon, while Blockbuster was separately sued for participating in it. Ultimately, Facebook agreed to pay almost $10 million to settle the case. (Blockbuster also agreed to pay around $50,000 to settle the lawsuit.)

Facebook's most recent privacy-hostile program, "instant personalization," automatically logs in users to Pandora, Yelp or Microsoft Docs. That scheme may well be challenged -- either by individual members or the Federal Trade Commission. Potentially, the move constitutes an unfair trade practice; it certainly violates the expectations that almost all of Facebook's 400 million users had when they signed up for the site.

The FTC already was dealing with a complaint against Facebook even before the launch of instant personalization. Additionally, the agency, which recently held panel discussions about online privacy, reportedly is working on guidelines for social networking sites.

Meantime, four Democratic senators -- Charles Schumer, Al Franken, Michael Bennet and Mark Begich -- are demanding that Facebook make instant personalization an opt-in feature rather than opt-out.

Facebook should have done so in the first place.

2 comments about "Zuckerberg 'Doesn't Believe In' Privacy -- But FTC Might".
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  1. Theresa m. Moore from Antellus, April 29, 2010 at 11:54 a.m.

    Of course, users always have the option to take the most sensible route -- sign out of Facebook and never go back. I did.

  2. Rich Ullman from Outbrain, Inc., April 30, 2010 at 1:12 p.m.

    @Theresa... that's for sure, but you are now one out of 450 million. I'm sure there will be more, but there's a long way to go before that ratio is anywhere near relevant.

    The hard part is that most people will be too lazy to do it. Ok, so maybe that's not the right word. The convenience-to-value equation is what will keep people logged into Facebook, and therefore creating more connections between people and things. And that will be data that's "owned" by Facebook.

    It's a low barrier for people to say, "Ok, I like it," or "Ok, go ahead and link those things in my profile." I don't think individuals yet know the implications of many of these things that Facebook is doing, but they will likely adjust.

    There will be a learning curve, much like there has been for all of the people who had incriminating photos exposed (uh... Michael Phelps, anyone?) or somehow discovered that even though transparency is, for the most part, a good thing, being 100% transparent about everything in your life is foolish. Or in some cases, just plain disgusting. :)

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