Facebook Does Not Understand the Meaning of Privacy


I'm a faithful Facebook user and defender. But it's a bit rich to hear CEO Mark Zuckerberg boast about his company's psychic mastery of users' privacy wishes one month after Americans went apoplectic about Facebook's privacy updates. Here's Zuckerberg:

"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.

Hold it. The fact that blogging has taken off in the last five or six years is evidence that people like publicly sharing their thoughts about food and politics and Jersey Shore. It does not at all mean that we've gotten comfortable with information we thought was private -- our phone numbers, our drunken photos, our private wall-to-wall chats -- suddenly being upchucked onto the World Wide Web in one messy and meaningless purge of regional networks.

Privacy is about control, and when Facebook changes its privacy control rules every six months to keep pace with the zeitgeist (or whatever), its users lose both control and privacy. Zuckerberg goes on:

"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."

It's cheeky of Zuckerberg to highlight Facebook's talent to "reflect...social norms" when every Facebook privacy update is met with something approximating funereal wailing. It's especially sketchy that Zuckerberg's diagnosis of our Brave New World of diminishing privacy is utterly self-serving. The more information that Facebook users share, the more information Facebook can vacuum into whatever ad-based revenue stream they're debuting this quarter.

Facebook is trapped by its own conventions, too. It's a social networking site, a goldmine of private information. Like a Middle Eastern country sitting on top of an ocean of oil, Facebook feels a business-driven pressure to let outsiders (ad companies) drill deep into their reserves, so they can shove Coldplay tickets in front of Coldplay fans and job listings in front of college seniors, and so forth. Facebook's incentive is entirely to move toward more openness. It's one thing to admit that a business is a business. It's another to pretend that your business objectives just happen to line up perfectly with your users' wishes, when you know very well that the opposite is true.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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