Facebook Privacy: Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing?

Try Googling the phrase, “Is Facebook losing members over privacy?” You’ll see seven of the top eight search results answering in the affirmative, as various headline writers take advantage of recent controversies regarding the world’s biggest social network and its customers’ profile data.

A deeper look into those stories, however, shows the headines are referring to a small but vocal group of well-known bloggers and technology industry names who have made a show in the past week of deleting their Facebook accounts: Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing, Gizmodo Cofounder Peter Rojas, tech expert Leo LaPorte and Google’s Matt Cutts. There is mention of a recent Sophos survey showing 60 percent of Facebook users saying they are considering leaving the network. But Fortune magazine quoted a Facebook spokesperson as saying that the network has actually experienced a gain of 10 million users since its f8 developer conference last month.

Apparently, though, the criticism from some loud voices in the technosphere — along with threats of government probes from the likes of N.Y. Sen. Charles Schumer — were enough to prompt a “we hear you” editorial from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in the weekend Washington Post, along with promises of a kinder, gentler, simpler privacy setting user interface coming this week from the network.

Facebook critics recognize the pattern: The company does what it wants until the backlash reaches a peak, and then promises to do better (see: Beacon), only to start the cycle all over again. It rasises the question: Does Facebook need to focus on privacy better this time before it does see noticeable damage in terms of deleted customer accounts?

A Dramatic Move Is Needed

“They haven’t been really responsive to user requests until now,” Seattle-based social media consultant Heidi Miller told TechNewsWorld. “I’m personally a little skeptical that they will suddenly become this customer-oriented company. They haven’t done that before.”

That, said Miller, would take a radical shift away from Facebook’s roots as a developer-centric company that in many respects still takes great pleasure in tinkering with software code. “Facebook has always had this developer’s approach — ‘Hey, let’s do this, this would be interesting, this would be fun.’ But they have so many users now that they have to look at it like a business and not as developers. They’re not just playing around with software anymore. It can’t just be about saying ‘Hey this would be cool.'”

The “this” in Miller’s remarks would refer to Facebook management’s perception that its users want their data’s default setting to be public. That, after all, is how the company would make any money from targeted advertising and demographic data. However, Miller believes at this stage in the public relations game, the bold thing for Zuckerberg and company to do would be to make the default setting private “if they wanted to make a show of good faith. There would be simple options after that to open it up more. But I don’t think they’ll do that because that won’t be in Facebook’s best interests. The data can’t be searched on Google if it’s private. But I think they do need to make a goodwill gesture and do something dramatic.”

The Rise of Competitors?

“Facebook is walking a very thin line of trust with its users right now,” Shauna Causey, communications director for Social Media Club Seattle, told TechNewsWorld. Zuckerberg knows how much that line has frayed, she said; in January he was saying “the age of privacy is over,” and last Sunday’s Washington Post op-ed spoke of “missing the mark” and “we’re listening.” Yet Causey thought it interesting that he only mentioned privacy once in the article.

Facebook’s reach with making data searchable and public may take another form of backlash: the rise of competitors looking to take advantage of any chinks in the company’s armor. “Many users are looking for alternatives to feel like they are in control of their information online,” Causey said. “The response from the tech community has been incredible. Volunteers, developers, funding sources — it’s been amazing to see how much demand is there for strong competition. I think alternatives will start to appeal to many users.”

One site Causey finds intriguing is Diaspora, which bills itself as a “privacy-aware, personally controlled, do-it-all open source social network.”

However, without evidence of a noticeable dropoff in Facebook accounts, privacy is unlikely to be much of a competitive advantage, according to Paul Gillen, a business-to-business social media consultant.

“The difficulty in switching social networks is an order of magnitude higher than switching search engines,” Gillen told TechNewsWorld. “The social capital and context that people create in networks, they’re all part of the value of the network. Facebook has a very high barrier to exit. That’s a good thing for Facebook because it means members are going to think hard before going somewhere else.”

Facebook will still need to address privacy issues, though, especially if they want businesses to take advantage of its Open Graph platform by integrating their Web presences with the network. “Businesses want to go on Facebook, they want to do business there, no question. But they have to know it’s a safe place,” Gillen said. “If Zuckerberg is making a mistake here, it’s not being more aware of the needs of the Coca-Colas and Fords and Starbucks of the world who are not going to sign on to Open Graph if they think they’re opening the doors to PR disasters.”

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