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Facebook Privacygate Continues

The furor about the Facebook Privacygate continues, with all sorts of people making grand pronouncements:

Henry Blodgett, Ignore The Screams—Facebook’s Aggressive Approach Is Why It Will Soon Become The Most Popular Site In The World

Facebook often shares way more information with the world than its users know, expect, or want.  It consistently approaches innovation and privacy changes with a do-it-first-and-then-see-what-happens attitude, which enrages those who feel it should ask permission first.  And it has often done a bad job of explaining to users what it is doing, why, and when, as well as what control users have over this.

But Facebook’s aggressiveness on the privacy front is a big reason for the site’s success. The company will survive the latest PR flap, just as it has survived all the other PR flaps. And unless the latest blow-up scares it into changing its ways (let’s hope not), Facebook will continuing growing like a weed until it is by far the most popular web site in the world (and note what “most popular” means: It means that, despite the howling of a tiny minority, more people choose to spend more time on Facebook than any other site in the world).

From a business perspective, in other words, Facebook’s approach to innovation is smart. It’s not always popular, but it works. And if Facebook wants to maintain its competitive edge, it will do what it has to do to smooth over the latest blow-up, and then go forth with the same approach and attitude it has had all along.

Step back and think about what Facebook is doing here.  It is pioneering an entirely new kind of service, one that most of its users have never seen before, one with no established practices or rules.  It is innovating in an area—the fine line between public and private—that has always freaked people out. It is allowing people to communicate and share information in ways they never have before. It is making decisions that affect hundreds of millions of people.  And it is trying to stay a step ahead of competitors that would like nothing better than to see it get scared and conservative and thus leave itself open to getting knocked off.

[…]

As loud as the recent screams have been, they will likely be forgotten in a month.  If they aren’t forgotten, Facebook can just roll back some of the changes that freak people out the most, just as it did a few years ago with Beacon, but keep the rest.

I actually don’t buy this argument at all. Facebook was growing very quickly with it’s old school form of privacy controls. It’s only after Twitter rejected Zuckerberg’s offers that he decided to throw privacy totally out the window, and subsequent privacy policy changes have enraged nearly everyone that understands what’s going on. It is not smart to disregard the serious issues here, hunker down in a PR bomb shelter for a few weeks, and then get back to pissing everyone off.

I also don’t agree that Facebook is pioneering something totally new; there have been literally dozens of social networking sites with millions of users, and they all have privacy policies of some description.

I do agree with Blodgett that there is a fine line between privacy and publicy, but I don’t see that taking a pause to figure out what exactly the Facebook’s privacy policies should be cedes competitive space to competitors. And even if it does, it should be done, anyway.

Innovation should not lead to users feeling that they are being raped, even if Blodgett and other boosters think it makes for good business.

danah boyd moves in a quite opposite direction, suggesting that Facebook has become a social utility, and therefore should be regulated:

danah boyd, Facebook Is A Utility; Utilities Get Regulated

Throughout Kirkpatrick’s “The Facebook Effect”, Zuckerberg and his comrades are quoted repeated as believing that Facebook is different because it’s a social utility. This language is precisely what’s used in the “About Facebook” on Facebook’s Press Room page. Facebook never wanted to be a social network site; it wanted to be a social utility. Thus, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Facebook functions as a utility.

And yet, people continue to be surprised. Partially, this is Facebook’s fault. They know that people want to hear that they have a “choice” and most people don’t think choice when they think utility. Thus, I wasn’t surprised that Elliot Schrage’s fumbling responses in the NYTimes emphasized choice, not utility: “Joining Facebook is a conscious choice by vast numbers of people who have stepped forward deliberately and intentionally to connect and share… If you’re not comfortable sharing, don’t.”

In my post yesterday, I emphasized that what’s at stake with Facebook today is not about privacy or publicity but informed consent and choice. Facebook speaks of itself as a utility while also telling people they have a choice. But there’s a conflict here. We know this conflict deeply in the United States. When it comes to utilities like water, power, sewage, Internet, etc., I am constantly told that I have a choice. But like hell I’d choose Comcast if I had a choice. Still, I subscribe to Comcast. Begrudgingly. Because the “choice” I have is Internet or no Internet.

[…]

Your gut reaction might be to tell me that Facebook is not a utility. You’re wrong. People’s language reflects that people are depending on Facebook just like they depended on the Internet a decade ago. Facebook may not be at the scale of the Internet (or the Internet at the scale of electricity), but that doesn’t mean that it’s not angling to be a utility or quickly becoming one. Don’t forget: we spent how many years being told that the Internet wasn’t a utility, wasn’t a necessity… now we’re spending what kind of money trying to get universal broadband out there without pissing off the monopolistic beasts because we like to pretend that choice and utility can sit easily together. And because we’re afraid to regulate.

And here’s where we get to the meat of why Facebook being a utility matters. Utilities get regulated. Less in the United States than in any other part of the world. Here, we like to pretend that capitalism works with utilities. We like to “de-regulate” utilities to create “choice” while continuing to threaten regulation when the companies appear too monopolistic. It’s the American Nightmare. But generally speaking, it works, and we survive without our choices and without that much regulation. We can argue about whether or not regulation makes things cheaper or more expensive, but we can’t argue about whether or not regulators are involved with utilities: they are always watching them because they matter to the people.

[…]

I cannot imagine that Facebook wants to be regulated, but I fear that it thinks that it won’t be. There’s cockiness in the air. Personally, I don’t care whether or not Facebook alone gets regulated, but regulation’s impact tends to extend much further than one company.  […] I just wish that Facebook would’ve taken a more responsible path so that we wouldn’t have to deal with what’s coming. And I wish that they’d realize that the people they’re screwing are those who are most vulnerable already, those whose voices they’ll never hear if they don’t make an effort.

danah takes the metaphor of being a ‘utility’ instead of an application to the logical conclusion. Other applications certainly have that characteristic, like instant messaging. Back when AOL was acquiring Times Warner the Justice Department considered AOL’s dominance in IM as a societal issue, and blocked AOL from adding voice and video support for years afterward, allowing Yahoo and MSN a competitive advantage. In essence, the Justice department was regulating that industry to ensure fairness and choice for users.

A similar case can be made for social networking, today. When so many people rely on these services — like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter — to work and play, and the actions of the largest players in this space impact hundreds of millions worldwide, and perhaps a hundred million or more US citizens, the US government should be involved in regulating this corner of the communications landscape.

If the government takes the side of the individual in the debate about Net Neutrality, certainly it must take the side of the individual in the face of actions taken by companies like Facebook that can cause societal harm. It is insufficient, as danah states, to say to users ‘You don’t like how we are running our application? Fine, just quit!’ The phone company is not allowed to do that, and neither are internet providers, or the electric company.

I’m with danah: this marketplace is ripe for regulation and reform. New and untried forms of advertising based on strip mining users’ information, considered private only a few months ago, need to be examined closely, not matter how happy they make VCs and market mavens like Henry Blodgett.

We are moving quickly into a web where people are voluntarily sharing more and more personal information, a world based increasingly on publicy instead of privacy. This transition is happening by the decisions of millions, on an independent basis, when they reveal their location, their purchasing preferences, or what they ate for lunch. But, as I wrote the other day,

Even though I am an advocate for publicy — living life in the open on the web — I am by no means an advocate for having it jammed down our throats by a unilateral change in the Terms Of Service agreement by a powerful corporation.

from Facebook Apologists Miss The Point: Facebook Isn’t The Future

Fred Wilson parses the situation pretty succinctly:

Fred Wilson, Privacy and the Treacherous Middle Ground

 The problem Facebook is having right now is that they are sort of private and sort of public. I think of them as a public channel. I don’t post anything to Facebook that I don’t want everyone to see. But that is not how many of their users see them. I believe Facebook is going to have to choose to be either totally public or totally private or they are going to gradually cede their social graph to services that stake out the totally public or totally private territory.

Privacy is pretty black and white. It either is or it isn’t. And trying to have it both ways won’t work.

Amen.

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Notes

  1. stoweboyd posted this
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