Privacy: Enough Already

Now that the privacy fiasco has made the cover of Time Magazine, the road has been paved for Facebook to answer the outcry in pursuit of makeup sex with its members. One of the most fascinating aspects of this episode is how people in different professions responded on the issue of online privacy.

Mark Cuban and Scoble make the point that privacy shouldn’t matter. Facebook is a publishing platform. Cuban and Scoble are public personalities. Their relative prominence makes every utterance an act of publishing. Most consumers are not public figures; they treat communication with friends as just that: communication with friends. One of the points Cuban makes is that consumers obviously don’t share their interests through Facebook to their friends, because, presumably, their friends already know their interests. Therefore, they are really sharing their interests to attract new friends. In theory this seems plausible, but in reality many people use Facebook to get to know their existing friends and family better. These people don’t want their love of Spandex and Air Supply made public. Even if consumers don’t know enough about it to be concerned, privacy does matter. But is it realistic?

Albert Maruggi makes the point that consumers shouldn’t trust their privacy to any corporation that is subject to investor pressure. I agree.

The crux of the issue is that Facebook (and any online business) makes money by acquiring, monetizing and retaining users. To acquire them and monetize them it needs to encourage public sharing (and search discoverability) through default settings and deliberately complex UI design in the opt-out. To retain them it needs to maintain a minimum level of trust with most of its members such that the attrition rate is acceptably low. The net result of this model when it comes to the current imbroglio  is simple: A vocal and very small minority may succeed in garnering media attention, but their impact won’t come close to offsetting the gains Facebook realizes by modifying its privacy options. Facebook’s intentions and mandate are clear. Even if it capitulates on a few issues, it will be a carefully rationalized response designed to mollify critics while maintaining a trajectory to a forecast.

Consumer privacy is not in the best interests of Facebook or its investors, and most consumers don’t care about privacy, even if it is in their long-term interests. Danah Boyd’s solution looks like a compelling option.

Facebook 2010. Mistah Kurtz, he ain’t so dead.

Jeff Jarvis penned an interesting piece on how Facebook should handle the current fiasco. Among his more poignant recommendations is that Facebook ought to recognize how much their defaults matter.”

While this seems like great advice on its face, the thing that is so troubling about this whole episode is that Facebook, at its scale,  knows the value of op-out more than any company in the world. Facebook understands that most people won’t bother to opt-out, and those that try to opt-out will be confused by the process and implications. Facebook is deliberately trying to increase the value of profiles, drive traffic, and increase the reach of its ad network.

The simple notion of having them delete your email address after you’ve already deleted your profile couldn’t have been made more complex.

Facebook, in response to the maelstrom, has suggested that: You’re pointing out things we need to fix.” The problem with this defense is that it’s disingenuous. No small amount of thought that went into to disaggregating features and regrouping them into a morass of default opt-out options. In fact, since the new privacy features accomplish exactly what Facebook wanted, the fix to which they’re referring is not the design or outcome, but rather palliative: more carefully masking their intentions to avoid a quell.

Facebook has become a complex and invasive list business masquerading as a trusted platform for personal interaction. The mass market deserves better.

Facebook and Privacy

Facebook's recent rollout of "personalization" has privacy advocates up in arms. While many of the complaints are directed at Facebook's wholesale change in privacy settings and the fact that they have made it impractical for consumers to control their personal data, and a vocal few are going ad-hominem on Zuckerberg, I'm struck by the asymmetry of passion on both sides of the issue. A passionate handful disagree so violently with the new policies that they are modifying their profiles or deleting them all together. And those who are less concerned suggest that Facebook isn't to blame, and  common sense should prevail.

Facebook is trying to change the role it plays  on the Internet and in the lives of its members. Becoming the default public profile service online and personalizing the Internet aren't bad ideas. Many companies are trying to build businesses on these ideas. But Facebook's implementation of these ideas is tacitly forcing, through implicit opt-in,  several hundred million people into a new set of services about which they know nothing.

This isn't uncommon in other aspects of life. Insurance, ISPs and credit card companies routinely change policies and the terms of engagement with the most passive notification to consumers. Lists are sold and resold.

But this is Facebook. A place where people "friend" each other and where people routinely discuss leaving the office early for a beer or their frustrations in the workplace. A place where people post pictures of their families and discuss medical issues. Why do people share this content? Because, it's human nature. Facebook is a social network designed to encourage sharing.

Facebook's stance is that the age of privacy is over. I disagree. People do share more. But people deserve to understand and control how what they share published, particularly in the context of a network that purports to be closed. Unless there is a change of course, these policy changes, when applied across a user base of five hundred million,  will have effects in the lives of many people.

Several hundred million people just got poked.