Suddenly Facebook Is in the Privacy Business

Remember when everybody hated Facebook because it invaded their privacy, kept them from getting their dream job and embarrassed them in front of their friends and family?

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Remember when everybody hated Facebook because it invaded their privacy, kept them from getting their dream job and embarrassed them in front of their friends and family? Those days are over, apparently. At least, that's what Facebook's Chief Privacy Officer Erin Egan wants you to think.

After privacy advocates flipped out over some employers asking would-be employees for their Facebook passwords, Egan wrote a Facebook Note defending "the privacy expectations and the security of both the user and the user’s friends." Egan writes:

We don't think employers should be asking prospective employees to provide their passwords because we don't think it's right the thing to do.  But it also may cause problems for the employers that they are not anticipating.  For example, if an employer sees on Facebook that someone is a member of a protected group (e.g. over a certain age, etc.) that employer may open themselves up to claims of discrimination if they don't hire that person. 

These are all good points! Egan goes on to detail how Facebook users have a right to privacy and a right to security. In her words,  Facebook users have "a right to keep their password to themselves, and [Facebook] will do [its] best to protect that right." Egan does not say, "You have a right to privacy," but in signing the note as Chief Privacy Officer and posting it to Facebook's Privacy page, she and her company are sending a pretty strong message that Facebook is in the business of protecting your privacy.

Wait a second. What happened to Mark "Privacy Is No Longer a 'Social Norm'" Zuckerberg? Where'd that guy go? Well, in the past year Zuckerberg's not only been to VietnamSouth America and China, he's been to his company's boardroom, where the bean counters are preparing for an initial public offering, perhaps one of the largest in this country's history. Whether of his own volition or at the behest of his fellow Facebook board members, Zuckerberg has changed his tune since the 2010 interview with TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington. "A lot of companies would be trapped by the conventions and their legacies of what they've built, doing a privacy change -- doing a privacy change for 350 million users is not the kind of thing that a lot of companies would do," Zuckerberg said then. "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 whole, privacy-is-over message didn't go over well with Facebook's 350 million users in 2010, and so in 2012, Facebook is singing a very different tune. Heck in the last days of 2011, Zuckerberg himself stepped up and acknowledged that his company did a bad thing in overestimating the extent to which its customers were willing to overshare. "I'm the first to admit that we've made a bunch of mistakes," he said during the holidays last year, adding that "Facebook has always been committed to being transparent. But we can also always do better. I'm committed to making Facebook the leader in transparency and control around privacy." This Facebook Note that Zuckerberg wrote hit the Web a couple weeks after he and Sheryl Sandberg sat down with Charlie Rose and boasted about their company's commitment to privacy. That was about four months ago, and look who's now speaking out against snooping bosses.

We're half tempted to feel optimistic about this Facebook following through on its promise to pay more attention to privacy. After all, it makes good business sense. Google looks like it's not only stumbled but properly tripping and fallen in public opinion after it decided to consolidate its various privacy policies into one, a move that outraged many. And it's also a hopeful sign that Zuckerberg assigned one of his oldest friends, Sam Lessin -- a fellow Kirkland House resident, a high-profile "acq-hire" and the brains behind the Timeline -- to oversee the execution of Facebook's privacy policy as one of the five czars of the company's product empire. And with Path, a company founded by early Facebook employee, experiencing explosive growth and the hiccups that come with that, Facebook has a chance to be the leader in privacy rather than the bain of privacy advocates.

Of course, official company blog posts are meant to send strong messages and Facebook's latest does just that. We also know that this employer snooping problem is a problem not only for Facebook but for America. (How's Barack Obama supposed to bring up those jobs numbers, if bosses are busy rooting around in the dark corners of would-be employees Facebook profiles?) Seriously, though. Facebook's well on its way to minting a lot of millionaires and more than a few billionaires with its late spring IPO. They're getting the paperwork in order and hiring every bank under the sun to help them do it right. It makes total sense that they're also trying to ace the public opinion business, too. Next mission: world peace.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.