Just a month ago, Facebook overhauled the privacy settings for its 350 million or so users and was targeted in an FTC complaint as a result — yet company CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Friday suggested that online privacy has faded in importance in recent years.
“When we 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 Web site?'” Zuckerberg recounted in an interview at the The Crunchies Awards in San Francisco.
“Then, in the last five or six years, blogging has taken off in a huge way and all these different services that have people sharing more information,” he went on. “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’s evolved over time.”
‘We Just Went for It’
Facebook’s privacy updates were motivated by its desire to reflect the most current social norms, Zuckerberg added.
“A lot of companies would be trapped by the conventions and their legacy of the systems that they’ve built,” he explained. “Doing a privacy change for 350 million users is not the type 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 think, what would we do if we were starting the company now, and starting the site now, and we decided that these would be the social norms now, and we just went for it,” he added.
An FTC Complaint
In implementing its privacy overhaul, Facebook took the unprecedented step of requiring its 350 million or so users worldwide to review and update their privacy settings.
Criticisms appeared soon afterward, prompting the social network to change the way it had originally handled the visibility of Friends lists on the site.
Next came charges that the changes had actually increased the amount of personal information that had become available to third-party application developers.
Shortly thereafter, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, charging that the changes Facebook made were unfair and deceptive.
‘That’s Absolutely Incorrect’
Amid all the flap about privacy on the site, Zuckerberg’s suggestion that online privacy is fading in importance came as a shock to many observers.
“I think that’s absolutely incorrect,” Marc Rotenberg, executive director of EPIC, told TechNewsWorld.
Instead, “Facebook is a company that is trying to erode the social norm of privacy,” Rotenberg charged.
‘A Deceptive Business Practice’
“Marc’s comments underscore the need for the FTC to act on the complaint that EPIC and other privacy groups have filed,” he added. “Facebook can’t acquire customer data under one set of expectations and then announce a new set of rules — that’s a deceptive business practice.”
Indeed, it’s clearly in Facebook’s financial interest to disclose more user information, Paul Stephens, director of policy advocacy with the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, pointed out.
The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse is one of many other privacy groups that support EPIC’s complaint.
In fact, “I think a lot of individuals are simply unaware of the extent to which their information is being disclosed to third parties,” Stephens told TechNewsWorld.
There may be some who don’t care about privacy, but most simply don’t understand the consequences of being on a social networking site such as Facebook, he added.
‘Facebook Has Monopoly Power’
Unfortunately, because of Facebook’s size and popularity, it seems to be able to do whatever it wants, Stephens said — or at least, it thinks it can.
“While there are alternatives, most don’t have the breadth of Facebook,” he explained. “People who do want to be on a social network want to be on the one that has all their friends, and that’s Facebook.”
In a sense, then, “Facebook has monopoly power, because while there are other sites, that’s the one everyone wants to be on,” he added. That, in turn, “gives them the ability to dictate terms, and it’s like, ‘take it or leave it.'”
Government intervention is needed in situations like that, Stephens concluded. “I’m not in favor of regulating everything, but in a situation like that, where an entity has market power that is so unwieldy — that’s a prime situation in which you want the government to come in and set some standards.”
It was out of privacy concerns that I never joined Facebook or mySpace or those other social networking sites because all a business has to do is change its mind and suddenly the agreement between them and their clients vanishes. What kind of consequences will Facebook have if someone makes a legal case out of it?
Best thing for everyone is to cancel your Facebook accounts and start over again.