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.