Facebook has faced backlashes before, but this time feels different. Despite amassing an empire of nearly 500 million users, the company is in the midst of a public relations fiasco, with users, tech columnists and even the FTC slamming CEO Mark Zuckerberg for privacy violations. So Zuckerberg took to the Washington Post today to defend Facebook's record and name the company's leading principles.
There's just one problem. If these are Facebook's principles, the company isn't doing a great job adhering to them. Let's look at the first three:
1. "You have control over how your information is shared."
Is it fair to say users have control over their information if the rules governing the information keep changing?
In 2007, no Facebook information was public to the broader Internet. At the end of 2009, basic stuff like name and gender became searchable through Google. In December, the company added "likes" and friends to the Internet-public stockpile. In April 2010, it added photos. Without pressing a button, the average default public user would have seen dramatic changes in how his information was shared through Facebook between 2007 and 2010.
The company is working on a simplified privacy system in the next few months, and one hopes that it will be simple, intuitive and wary of the balance between those who want to lock down all of their information and those who don't mind transparency. But the fact is, it's in Facebook's business interest to have users default to public and then to slowly grow the definition of the word public. Facebook's privacy rules have evolved and personal control over information has sometimes been a casualty of that evolution.
2. "We do not share your personal information with people or services you don't want."
This is a strange principle for a company now infamous for sharing personal information with people and services users didn't expect. Examples abound, but Time magazine's Dan Fletcher noted one of the more infamous episodes in a new article:
In 2007... default settings in an initiative called Facebook Beacon sent all your Facebook friends updates about purchases you made on certain third-party sites. Beacon caused an uproar among users -- who were automatically enrolled -- and occasioned a public apology from Zuckerberg.
In another snafu, Zuckerberg's photos surfaced on the Web -- some were excerpted by Gawker -- before he reclaimed them behind the privacy wall. Facebook's privacy rules and updates have been so complicated and messy that even its founder and CEO has been a victim.
3. "We do not give advertisers access to your personal information."
Before we parse this statement, let's review the company's ad strategy. Facebook gives advertisers access to buckets of information. So if Ford wants to show ads to a 30-year old in D.C. who likes red sports cars, Facebook can scrape together all the thirtysomethings in the D.C.-area who express an interest in sports cars or The Fast and the Furious and put targeted ads by their pages.
Does this count as giving advertisers access to personal information? It's tricky. Ford does not get to see a list of names. Instead it gets to show its products to a pool of Facebook users. But the more you share, the more access advertisers get. As the Time cover story explains, "if three of your friends click a Like button for, say, Domino's Pizza, you might soon find an ad on your Facebook page that has their names and a suggestion that maybe you should try Domino's too."
At best, these principles are conspicuously inarticulate attempts to split the difference between Facebook's business interest (openness) and users' chief concern (privacy). At worst, Facebook is engaging in corporate recidivism -- shoving its privacy settings toward publicity, apologizing with an homage to privacy, and then swiftly re-offending.
The weird thing about all of this is that, as a user, I don't really care. I'm Facebook friends with my boss, my colleagues, and my mom. I don't place (or leave) information on Facebook I don't want public. Sure, there are some photos of me I would rather not appear on the 5 o'clock news. But I certainly wouldn't think of leaving Facebook in indignation over the privacy updates, complicated as they are.
As somebody who's interested in the future of the Web and Web-advertising, I do care, quite a bit. See, I actually like what Facebook is trying to do with Open Graph, which collects articles and information that users "like" on Facebook widgets throughout the Web and pools it together to personalize our experience on sites like Yelp, Pandora, and the Washington Post. But when Zuckerberg goes national with equivocal statements like the ones above about privacy and user expectations, he damages the potential of his brand and his ideas.