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Bait and switch

If there's one subject Facebook's PR people probably wish its founder and CEO, 27-year-old Mark Zuckerberg, had never discussed in public it's privacy, which he dismissed in January as no longer a social norm.

What made Zuckerberg's statement sound hypocritical - on top of arrogant, blinkered, self-interested, and callous - is the fact that he himself protects information he posts on Facebook. If he doesn't want his own family photographs searchable on Google, why does he assume that other people do?

What's equally revealing, though, is the comment he went on to make (quoted in that same piece) that he views it as really important "to keep a beginner's mind" in deciding what the company should do next. In other words, they ask themselves what decision they would make if they were starting Facebook now - and then they do that.

You can't hardly get there from here.

Zuckerberg is almost certainly right that if he were setting up the company now he'd make everything public as a default setting - as Twitter, founded two years later, does. Of course he'd do things differently: he'd be operating post-Facebook. Most important, he'd be a tiny company instead of a huge one. Size matters: you cannot make the same decisions that you would if you were a start-up when you have 400 million users, are the Web's largest host of photographs, and the biggest publisher of display ads. Facebook is discovering what Microsoft and Google also have: it isn't easy being big.

Being wholly open would, I'm sure, be a simpler situation both legally and in terms of user expectations, and I imagine it would be easier to program and develop. The difficulty is that he isn't starting the company now, and just as the seventh year of a marriage isn't the same as the first year of a marriage, he can't behave as if he is. Because: like in a marriage, Facebook has made promises to its users throughout the last six years, and you cannot single-handedly rewrite the contract without betraying them.

On Sky TV last night, I called Facebook's attitude to privacy a case of classic bait-and-switch. While I have no way of knowing if that was Zuckerberg's conscious intention when he first created Facebook in his Harvard dorm room at 19, that is nonetheless an accurate description of the situation. Facebook users - and the further you go back in the company's history the more true this is - shared their information because the company promised them privacy. Had the network been open from the start, people would likely have made different choices. Both a group of US senators nor the EU's Data Protection working party understand this perfectly. It would be a mistake for Facebook's management to dismiss these complaints as the outdated concerns of a bunch of guys who aren't down with the modern world.

Part of Facebook's difficulty with privacy issues is I'm sure the kind of interface design problem computer companies have struggled with for decades. In published comments, the company has referred to the conflict between granularity and simplicity: people want detailed choices but providing those makes the interface complex; simplifying the interface removes choice. I don't think this is an unsolvable problem; though it does require a new approach.

One thing I'd like Facebook to provide is a way of expiring data (which would solve a number of privacy issues) so that you could specify that anything posted on the site will be deleted after a certain amount of time has passed. Such a setup would also allow users to delete data posted before the beginning date of a new privacy regime. I'd also like to be able to export all my data in a format suitable for searching and archiving on my own system.

Zuckerberg was a little bit right, in that people are disclosing information to anybody who's interested in a way they didn't - couldn't - before. That doesn't, however, mean they're not interested in privacy; it means many think they are in private, talking to their friends, without understanding who else may be watching. It was doubtless that sort of feeling that ledPaul Chambers into trouble: a few days ago he was (in my opinion outrageously) fined £1,000 for sending a menacing message over a public telecommunications network.

I suppose Facebook can argue that the fact that 400 million people use their site means their approach can't be wholly unpopular. The number of people that have deleted their accounts since the latest opening-up announcements seems to be fairly small. But many more are there because they have to be: they have friends who won't communicate in any other way, or there are work commitments that require it. Facebook should remember that this situation came about because the company made promises about privacy. Reneging on those promises and thumbing your nose at people for being so stupid as to believe you invites a backlash.

Where Zuckerberg is wrong is to think that the errors people make in a new and unfamiliar medium where the social norms and community standards are still being defined means there's been a profound change in the world's social values. If it looks like that to rich geeks in California, it may be time for them to get out of Dodge.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of the earlier columns in this series.


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