Facebook and Privacy: Imperfect Together

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Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook profile.

So help me, I like Mark Zuckerberg. I’m glad he invented Facebook in his Harvard dorm back in early 2004 and has devoted himself to it ever since. The world, and my life, are richer for it.

I do confess, however, to feeling just a tiny twinge of pleasure as I read the blog post Zuckerberg published this week concerning his company’s deal with the FTC┬áto settle a bevy of privacy-related complaints that piled up over the years.

Facebook agreed to operate under a variety of restrictions intended to ensure that it doesn’t improperly share information which members believe to be private, including biannual privacy audits for the next two decades. While the company didn’t formally admit having done anything wrong, Zuck wolfed down copious amounts amounts of crow in the post. He didn’t sound too pleased about it.

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Zuckerberg also pointed out numerous instances of Facebook taking ambitious steps to help its members control what information they share, and with whom. They’re real, and it deserves credit for them. But he shouldn’t expect such good deeds to earn it any Get Out of Jail Free cards with its members or the FTC. It has a reputation for being insufficiently respectful of its members’ privacy because…well, because it’s sometimes been insufficiently respectful of its members’ privacy.

For a club with hundreds of millions of active members, Facebook remains remarkably symbiotic with its creator. Its philosophy about privacy reflects his own feelings, which have always been, um, multi-faceted and subject to change. The Mark Zuckerberg who just appointed not one but two Chief Privacy Officers is the same dude who, in Facebook’s earliest days, bragged to a friend that he had scads of information on 4,000 of his Harvard classmates and directed a foul-mouthed insult at them for having been so gullible as to trust him. The two attitudes express the polar extremes of Facebook privacy; at one point or another, Zuck has covered most of the ground in between.

Over time, the man and his social network settled into a routine. They’d introduce a new feature that did new things with users’ online information without seeking permission, in ways that shocked and/or irritated some members. Then they’d respond to the uproar by dialing back the new feature–but usually not by simply rescinding it, at least immediately. A classic example was 2007’s Beacon advertising feature, which left members startled to find the details of their purchases at sites such as showing up on Facebook, in public.

The company fiddled with Beacon before finally dumping it, but the new Open Graph feature, which pumps information from external services such as Spotify into Facebook feeds, shows that it never lost interest in the basic concept.

Facebook’s low point may have came in 2009, when it made sweeping changes that undid members’ privacy settings, thereby disclosing information that had previously been restricted from public view. The site, which had once played up the virtue of sharing information only with friends and hiding it from everyone else, was moving into a new phase that emphasized sharing, not hiding. Or, as Zuck blithely put it in April 2010, “We are building a Web in which the default is social.”

When I read that he’d said that, I came to a conclusion similar to the one that Farhad Manjoo made this week in an article at Slate: The best approach to Facebook privacy is to assume that there isn’t any. If you’ve got photos, affiliations or peccadilloes that you prefer to hide from the world, the worst possible place for them is Facebook, no matter what your settings. But for stuff you want to share–hey, there’s no better place.

Ultimately, if you expect Mark Zuckerberg to serve as a tireless champion of existing notions about privacy, you’re going to be disappointed at least some of the time. That’s not what he and Facebook are here for.

No, Zuck’s calling is to change how people feel about sharing online, and to encourage them to do more of it, not less. As he frequently says, people are inclined to double the amount of information that they share on Facebook each year. The phenomenon is known as Zuckerberg’s Law, and he’s not about to stand in its way.

More than 800 million human beings have bought into Zuck’s vision so far, imperfect though it is. I suspect that in the years to come, he’ll continue to provoke us to rethink what we share, who we share it with and how we share it. I’m game, but I also hope that the FTC settlement has a lasting effect. As I said, I like the guy–but I’d like him even more if he was a little more sober and a little less capricious.

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