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The furor about the Facebook Privacygate continues, with all sorts of people making grand pronouncements:
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 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.
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.
Liz Gannes, Facebook Needs to Find Its Voice on Privacy
First of all, the relationship between privacy and Facebook is always going to be complicated. This is the issue for the company, and will continue to be. Facebook needs its users’ trust in order to provide them value. But the company has been slipping up — on a number of fronts. First, it overstepped user comfort levels with the rollout of instant personalization features that are opt-out rather than opt-in. (It’s also setting itself up for another maelstrom over user data retention.) Meanwhile, Facebook’s privacy controls continue to be way too complicated — the whole product itself needs significant improvements. And lastly, it’s suffering multiple unintended security holes, both by itself and its partners.
These problems build on each other. Now the leading narrative in the media is that Facebook is cavalier about privacy. Last night came the news that Facebook had to shut down one of its three carefully chosen instant personalization partners, Yelp, for repeated insecure protection of user data. Some prominent users are leaving the site altogether, and they’re perceived as level-headed technologists rather than Chicken Little-types. An upstart group of four programmers building a private alternative to Facebook called Diaspora has gained steam incredibly quickly. And some widely read tech commentators say they believe Facebook’s leadership is evil.
The rising narrative about Facebook is that they could care less about what users need or want. Facebook is apparently pursuing a strategy of maximal financial reward for the company based on stripmining all sorts of information that users might think is private, but isn’t, or information they might like to keep private, but can’t. The recent NY Times Q&A with Elliot Schrage was an example of the company trying to deflect criticisms about it policies by suggesting that they simply haven’t been doing a good enough job of communicating. I’m sorry, but when Genghis Khan is burning down your city, having a carefully worded press release on the topic doesn’t really make it better.
I joined the herds leaving Facebook this week, although so far I have only deactiviated my account. When I return from Europe, I am going to figure out how to drop it altogether, after letting various contacts know. For me, it’s not much of a hardship since I don’t use Facebook actively.
My bet is that Facebook will regroup by making some of the most egregious privacy pitfalls — like instant personalization — opt in. If they don’t various governments, like the EU in particular, will certainly require that they do so. But that will not be enough to make this stink go away. Facebook would have to demonstrate for a considerable time that it was going to put the interests of their users ahead of their goals for world domination; short of that, I for one won’t buy some new found interest in user privacy.