Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg told a live audience yesterday that if he were to create Facebook again today, user information would by default be public, not private as it was for years until the company changed dramatically in December.
In a six-minute interview on stage with TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington, Zuckerberg spent 60 seconds talking about Facebook's privacy policies. His statements were of major importance for the world's largest social network - and his arguments in favor of an about-face on privacy deserve close scrutiny.
Zuckerberg offered roughly 8 sentences in response to Arrington's question about where privacy was going on Facebook and around the web. The question was referencing the changes Facebook underwent last month. Your name, profile picture, gender, current city, networks, Friends List, and all the pages you subscribe to are now publicly available information on Facebook. This means everyone on the web can see it; it is searchable. I'll post Zuckerberg's sentences on their own first, then follow up with the questions they raise in my mind. You can also watch the video below, the privacy part we transcribe is from 3:00 to 4:00.
"When I got started in my dorm room at Harvard, the question a lot of people asked was 'why would I want to put any information on the Internet at all? Why would I want to have a website?'
"And then 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 has evolved over time.
"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.
"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. 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's Not a Believable Explanation
This is a radical change from the way that Zuckerberg pounded on the importance of user privacy for years. That your information would only be visible to the people you accept as friends was fundamental to the DNA of the social network that hundreds of millions of people have joined over these past few years. Privacy control, he told me less than 2 years ago, is "the vector around which Facebook operates."
I don't buy Zuckerberg's argument that Facebook is now only reflecting the changes that society is undergoing. I think Facebook itself is a major agent of social change and by acting otherwise Zuckerberg is being arrogant and condescending.
Perhaps the new privacy controls will prove sufficient. Perhaps Facebook's pushing our culture away from privacy will end up being a good thing. The way the company is going about it makes me very uncomfortable, though, and some of the changes are clearly bad. It is clearly bad to no longer allow people to keep the pages they subscribe to private on Facebook.
This major reversal, backed-up by superficial explanations, makes me wonder if Facebook's changing philosophies about privacy are just convenient stories to tell while the company shifts its strategy to exert control over the future of the web.
Facebook's Different Stories
First the company kept user data siloed inside its site alone, saying that a high degree of user privacy would make users comfortable enough to share more information with a smaller number of trusted people.
Now that it has 350 million people signed up and connected to their friends and family in a way they never have been before - now Facebook decides that the initial, privacy-centric, contract with users is out of date. That users actually want to share openly, with the world at large, and incidentally (as Facebook's Director of Public Policy Barry Schnitt told us in December) that it's time for increased pageviews and advertising revenue, too.
The Flimsy Evidence
What makes Facebook think the world is becoming more public and less private? Zuckerberg cites the rise of blogging "and all these different services that have people sharing all this information." That last part must mean Twitter, right? But blogging is tiny compared to Facebook! It's made a big impact on the world, but only because it perhaps doubled or tripled the small percentage of people online who publish long-form text content. Not very many people write blogs, almost everyone is on Facebook.
Facebook's Barry Schnitt told us last month that he too believes the world is becoming more open and his evidence is Twitter, MySpace, comments posted to newspaper websites and the rise of Reality TV.
But Facebook is bigger and is growing much faster than all of those other things. Do they really expect us to believe that the popularity of reality TV is evidence that users want their Facebook friends lists and fan pages made permanently public? Why cite those kinds phenomena as evidence that the red hot social network needs to change its ways?
The company's justifications of the claim that they are reflecting broader social trends just aren't credible. A much more believable explanation is that Facebook wants user information to be made public and so they "just went for it," to use Zuckerberg's words from yesterday.
(Why didn't Arrington press Zuckerberg on stage about this? The rise of blogging is evidence that Facebook needs to change its fundamental stance on privacy?)
This is Very Important
Facebook allows everyday people to share the minutiae of their daily lives with trusted friends and family, to easily distribute photos and videos - if you use it regularly you know how it has made a very real impact on families and social groups that used to communicate very infrequently. Accessible social networking technology changes communication between people in a way similar to if not as intensely as the introduction of the telephone and the printing press. It changes the fabric of peoples' lives together. 350 million people signed up for Facebook under the belief their information could be shared just between trusted friends. Now the company says that's old news, that people are changing. I don't believe it.
I think Facebook is just saying that because that's what it wants to be true.
Whether less privacy is good or bad is another matter, the change of the contract with users based on feigned concern for users' desires is offensive and makes any further moves by Facebook suspect.
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