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Privacy in the Facebook Era

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Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg recently stated that privacy is no longer a social norm. Is that an actual fact or a engineered fact?

Here’s why I ask. Over the past several years, whenever Facebook has made a change to its privacy policies, it has caused great uproar—not only with civil liberties advocates (as you would expect), but also with Facebook’s user base.

The recent brute-force change to the privacy settings of all 350 million of its users is just the latest in a series of moves that exposes more of Facebook’s users’ information.

According to the above linked article, here’s what Zuckerberg said about the recent change:

Doing a privacy change for 350 million users is not the kind 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 what would we do if we were starting the company now and we decided that these would be the social norms now and we just went for it.

That last statement, “we decided that these would be the social norms,” is the telling truth. It is not that lack of privacy has become a social norm. It is that Facebook believes that it should be.

It is as if Facebook issued a decree to its global citizens. Privacy is no longer something you should request. Privacy is not in the best interests of our society (as in Facebook’s “society” or corporate mission).

Exposing more of its users’ data to the world is, of course, attractive to Facebook’s business alliances. It offers a number of new opportunities for profit. To a company rumored to be heading toward an IPO in 2010, new revenue streams and growing profits are a good thing.

But open data and opening up of personal data are two different issues. What pieces of your data should be open? Where do we draw the line? In general, as long as they are not breaking any laws, I believe it should be up to individuals to decide which pieces of their personal data are made public.

In a free society, we should strive toward letting individuals, not governments or corporations, be in control of their personal data. Collectively society should “own” the data with individuals given control over a subset of their personal data.

There are compelling reasons why opening up personal data to the world is desirable. But it should not be up to governments or corporations to make that choice on behalf of their citizens and users. In a free society, it should be the citizens who drive the push toward more open data, not a few elite power players who force the issue.

What do you think? Is Facebook engineering the expectation of lack of privacy? Are they forcing the issue and making it become a social norm by brute force? Is this truly what their users want? What rights should individuals have to control their personal data?

UPDATE February 24, 2010: See my article A Flock of Twitters: Decentralized Semantic Microblogging to see how users can take control of their own on-line communication streams.

UPDATE March 19, 2010: As this year’s keynote speaker at South by SouthWest Interactive (SXSWi), Danah Boyd presented a very thought-provoking keynote presentation on privacy in social media: Making Sense of Privacy and Publicity.

UPDATE May 2, 2010: The Electronic Frontier Foundation recently published a very illuminating article on this topic, Facebook’s Eroding Privacy Policy: A Timeline.

UPDATE May 8, 2010: An interesting graphic depicting what I call the devolution of Facebook privacy.

Article Comments

  1. American Yak says:

    I always use the very easy to compare analogy of money. Banks spend hundreds of millions of dollars (or more?) safe guarding your money *online,* arguably making these resources as private and safe (if not safer and more private) than government resources. The rallying cry by Zuckerberg is a front, and he probably knows it. Yes, there is a case to be made that we’re in the wild west, and privacy battles are going to be won and fought. But that is vastly different than saying nothing is private anymore. Who does he think he is?

    ON THE OTHER HAND, I do think there are valid cases where companies and the government have it as part of their duty to make that which is private known, as it is also part of their duty to keep things private. Where do we draw these lines? I don’t think it’s always simple.

  2. A couple questions:

    1. how would “free individuals” collectively assert their preference to Facebook — or anyone else — in such a way that it would result in the same outcome as Zuckerberg’s decision? That is, you say “In a free society, it should be the citizens who drive the push toward more open data, not a few elite power players who force the issue.”

    Is that not already the case evidenced by people’s behavior, rather than, say, a popular uprising? Given that Facebook controls the design of the site — and their source code and user experience is not user-maleable or writable — shouldn’t Facebook be responding to the behavior patterns of its users, rather than dictated by verbal arguments?

    2. For what it’s worth, as a private company, Facebook can basically do whatever they want. They are specifically not a government (though they have a substantially large constituency to serve/appease) and need not behave as one. The only constitution guiding their behavior is the terms of service and privacy policy, which they reserve the right to change at any time (albeit with some quasi-democratic voting procedure).

    3. You can always quit Facebook, or ever delete your account. Or heck, never even sign up. You’re assigned a government based on where you’re born. It seems to me that free choice is preserved simply by that fact — and if you choose to live under the rules set by Facebook, Inc., you’ve done so freely — bearing whatever consequences that decision may result in.

  3. And I realize now that perhaps I meant to say “a couple comments” rather than “questions”. ;)

  4. Jeff Sayre says:

    I’ve removed my reply to Chris as I’ve turned it into a new article. You can read it here: http://jeffsayre.com/2010/05/02/regaining-control-of-privacy-and-identity-it’s-up-to-each-individual/

  5. Gib Wallis says:

    The thing I haven’t seen anyone point out in this discussion of Zuckerberg’s statement — especially the wonderful Michael Arrington who elicited the comment from Zuckerberg in the interview — is that, on a personal level, it’s complete hogwash.

    Facebook’s new privacy policy started, and Gawker went to Zuckerberg’s Facebook page and saw, grabbed, and published tons of photos of him huggy a teddy bear with a bong next to him and many other photos that aren’t professional or publicist approved.

    Zuckerberg is the lead figure for Facebook and its founder and a millionaire, so there’s no HR department to deny him a job and no prospective mother-in-law to tell him to stop courting her progeny on the basis on those photos.

    And yet, nevertheless, after the policy changed to being wide open and the pics were published, Zuckerberg decided to remove huge sections of his profile and his photos.

    So talking about a new norm and expressing surprise at how everyone really wants it is really specious on its face. He obviously didn’t want his pics out there, he didn’t understand himself how wide open the policy was when he got the memo or sat through the meeting, and he immediately did an about face with his privacy settings to remove things he wants to share with friends from public view.

    He himself experience the shock and embarrassment that many of the Facebook userbase went through. Tech journalists should point this out and ask him on a personal level about how Facebook should behave with other people who may have a higher cost than he has.

    He basically is invulnerable to many of the modern problems of a public life except to embarrassment, and even then he didn’t let his personal and private photos continue to be published widely on his profile.

    When people lose jobs, relationships and opportunities — or fear their loss — because of information and photos revealed by a social networking site changing its privacy policies without notice — it’s really hard to stomach that the multi-millionare 20something founder says privacy doesn’t matter anymore when he has nothing to lose and still won’t be an example of the kind of carefree attitude towards personal and private information that he says is the new norm.

    If the founder of Facebook can’t handle the new privacy policies, why should everyone else?

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