DOES FACEBOOK have a privacy problem? We think so.
Earlier this month, following a call for us on details on an apparent rushed meeting among Facebook staffers on privacy, we were told that such meetings were commonplace and nothing out of the ordinary. They probably are. The social networking site wrestles with more privacy issues than stripping campers in well lit canvas tents.
On paper, or on LCD screens at least, privacy generates a lot of blog posts on the Facebook official pages, this month being no exception. Not one but three privacy announcements have been made by the firm in the last two weeks, all of them associated with simplifying users' control over their own information.
Unclear, hard to locate, nevermind alter, Facebook's privacy and user settings are clouded by controls and shrouded in doublespeak. Now, they are supposed to be clearer. Users can opt out of things they don't like - long the established norm in other businesses - and can choose to be removed from its advertising platform wholesale. However, it should be noted that doing this removes access to many of the site's main features, meaning that the user must choose whether privacy is worth the sacrifice.
Facebook makes no bones about not really giving two hoots about privacy. Last week its founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg admitted that the site rushed into things and sometimes got them wrong, and yesterday he announced a fresh range of changes to the site designed to boost privacy and simplify personal settings. But it may be too little, too late.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which ran a petition demanding that Facebook give users control over all of the information, sort of welcomed the changes. "Today's changes are a major step forward for privacy on Facebook: users simply have more and better controls today than they had yesterday," it said. "There are still substantial issues that Facebook needs to address."
The Electronic Frontier Foundation feels the same, and blogged its response this morning. "The changes are pretty good, though more is needed" said Kevin Bankston writing on the web site. "We still have some fundamental concerns about the amount of user information being shared with third-party Facebook applications and web sites. So we hope that this is only Facebook's first step in a more privacy-conscious direction, rather than its last."
Privacy International, however, was more scathing, and called the changes a 'red herring'. "Privacy International's response is one of disappointment and frustration. Rather than being a bold step forward in the advancement of consumer rights, the latest changes merely correct some of the most unacceptable privacy settings on the site. Very little has changed in terms of the overall privacy challenge that Facebook and its users need to navigate."
Privacy International added that only a minority - it suggested that it may have been a small minority - of users would be able to either use or understand the privacy controls.
"It could be reasonably argued that this latest announcement is merely a red herring to divert attention away from a much larger issue," the organisation noted. "Facebook operates on a business model that requires it to monetise the data harvested from customers. That means ensuring that the maximum flow of information is achieved."
Facebook's business model is, of course, built on the fact that people make information public as this information is then sold to advertisers. The model has turned Facebook into a multimillion dollar business. The actual numbers, typically, are hard to pin down, but according to Forbes estimates for 2009 range from $300 million to $500 million. No small change.
Bruce Nussbaum, professor of Innovation and Design at Parsons School of Design, this week penned an interesting blog at the Harvard Business Review. Nussbaum's students are Facebook users, a fact that seems to annoy and beguile him.
He said that Facebook users, specifically ex-generation Xers, had grown tired of the discrepancies between a service that supports them, but also seeks to exploit them.
"Giving economic value to social networks is the new holy grail in advertising and the media," he wrote. "An army of economists and mathematicians are at work on this task. To date, most of the work has focused on metrics - how many friends, how many linkages, how much influence. Facebook's problems with privacy highlight the need to understand culture as well."
That's if it wants to listen. Maybe, it just doesn't care.
Some might argue that Zuckerberg is a a sociopath, or worse. Sociopaths are unable to empathise with their victims, they have contempt for natural feelings and take advantage of weakness. Sociopaths do not recognise the rights of others, they appear charming on the outside, but on the inside are a sleeping tiger, just waiting to take advantage of others.
Our lawyers say it is not for us to comment on, but how do the above definitions tally with the Zuckerberg we don't see? The infamous instant messaging conversation uncovered by the Silicon Alley Insider web site in which Zuckerberg discussed the genesis of Facebook is telling if, that is, it is real.
Asked why people would have handed over their information to their first incarnation of the site in a private instant messaging conversation, Zuckerberg allegedly replied: "They 'trust me' ... Dumb fucks." Ouch. Where is the smiling young entrepreneur now?
The Silicon Alley Insider has been riding Zuckerberg's back like a monkey for some time now, and in March reported that Zuckerberg had stolen the idea off three other Harvard students. This claim is still in the hands of lawyers and the courts, but SAI has other information that suggests that the young(er) Zuckerberg hacked into Facebook member accounts and read their emails, and hacked into a competing site, changed some user information, and made the site less useful.
This does not sound good, and Zuckerberg seems to have the air of the Madoff about him. Maybe the sociopath label is too soft. Look up the definition of a pyschopath and draw your own conclusions.
Like Ted Bundy's yellow VW Beetle, even the firm's new datacentre hides a horrible secret inside. Described as 'one of the greenest in the industry' by Facebook, it is powered primarily by coal. To quote 1984, "a world of steel and concrete, of monstrous machines and terrifying weapons", it sounds miles away from the idyll Facebook described.
Sandy Leon West, the editor of the Solar Times, urged users of Facebook to consider what sort of a company they are using, and ask themselves whether they really need what it is selling. "We are here now - at this point in history. The battle lines between ‘We the People' and the Corporate State have never been more clearly drawn," she wrote.
"At this moment, progressives still have the opportunity to determine the outcome of that battle. But it is only a moment, and we will never get it back. No less than the future of our culture and our species will depend upon what we choose to do next. If we let the moment pass, that non-decision will become our collective destiny."
As for the impact of yesterday's changes, we can't say. Announcing the changes Zuckerberg told a press conference, "This is the end of the overhaul we're doing. One of the big takeaways we've got from this is don't mess with privacy stuff for a long time."
So there you go. Like it - if you'll pardon the pun - or dump it. We fear it ain't changing again anytime soon. µ
The other Google news of the week
Everyone clear the Aria!
And it's Samsung's thinnest and lightest tablet yet