Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Facebook privacy: Probably not dead either

There seem to be a lot of articles and posts lately about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg having announced the "end of privacy", so let's slow down a bit.

Here's a transcript of what Zuckerberg said on the matter, taken from Marshall Kirkpatrick's critique (the post also includes video of the original interview):
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.
On the face of it, this sounds like a CEO making a fairly narrow statement about his company's service. There's a bit of ambiguity as to which social norms he's talking about, but clearly said norms are those of people who are on or might like to be on Facebook. So why has it been repeatedly glossed as "Facebook CEO says privacy is obsolete" or similar?

From what I can make out (and I'm not on Facebook) Facebook is changing its default privacy settings for content users publish from opt-in (you have to explicitly say you're sharing information) to opt-out (you have to explicitly say you aren't). This is part of a larger shift to more fine-grained privacy control, and to manage the transition Facebook users have been given a tool to "empower people to personalize control over their information".

Before I go on, here's a little Bingo card you can use the next time Facebook puts out a press release like the one in the link:

transparentempowerroll outeasy-to-usepersonalize
serve users’ changing needstoolFREEdynamicsimplify
communitymodelintuitiveaccessibleset a new standard

But I digress.

Reading past the marketspeak, this looks like a pretty reasonable cut at something any successful software product needs sooner or later: a migration tool. In particular, they appear to go to some lengths to preserve settings you already have. Where that can't be done, it looks like they tell you what the default is, and why, and how to change it. The devil is in the details, but it's clear that they've at least examined the kind of issues that inevitably crop up in such an exercise. Their claim to have done extensive user testing looks credible. With 350 million users, they better have.

One item does stand out, though, and it's probably the basis of Zuckerberg's comments above:
Common set of publicly available information: Facebook’s latest privacy policy, announced in October, indicated that certain basic information—a user’s name, profile picture, gender, current city, Friend List and Pages—would be categorized as “publicly available.” The overwhelming majority of users already make all of this information available to everyone and this label was chosen to ensure that users understand that it is possible for this information to be viewed by others. However, users can still avoid being found in searches or prevent contact from non-friends.
So, if you want to be on Facebook, you have to give out those basic items, but now they make that an explicit policy rather instead of just something everyone was doing. You can choose who sees what else, but with finer-grained control now. People who didn't originally make the basic items above public (may?) now have them made public, but nothing else need change. Maybe I've missed something, but this doesn't seem earth-shaking, and Zuckerberg's comments don't seem to say much more than "It looks like people like to share stuff on Facebook more widely than we originally expected."  [Five or six years on, it seems even less like the Earth has shaken --D.H. Dec 2015]

And it's all just Zuckerberg's opinion. As Derek Thompson argues, Zuckerberg may not even be right about people's attitudes in his own backyard of FaceBook.

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