< Facebook's Privacy Backlash


Friday, May 21, 2010

BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the past couple of weeks, criticism of Facebook’s privacy policies has reached a fever pitch.

MALE CORRESPONDENT: Facebook facing a growing privacy backlash - is it an existential moment for the company?

FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: A new feature on Facebook is raising concerns over privacy on the social network used by 400 million users.

JASON CALACANIS: You have a lack of leadership at your company when it comes to privacy, and you have a glib and reckless approach to people’s privacy.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: That last clip was Internet entrepreneur Jason Calacanis way back in December of last year with a message to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook came under renewed fire recently, after it announced that it would share information culled from people’s Facebook profiles with third-party sites like Yelp and Pandora. This merely piled on the growing fear that Facebook shares too much user information by default, mines user info for data, and changes its privacy settings without adequate disclosure. Shortly after the latest announcement, a coalition of consumer groups, and New York Senator Charles Schumer, petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to address Facebook’s privacy settings. According to Wired.com blogger Ryan Singel, the backlash has been building momentum for quite some time, largely because Facebook seems to be continually moving the goalposts of its users’ default privacy settings.

RYAN SINGEL: Before the defaults were only your friends and family could see your information. Now almost everything you put online, Facebook wants you to make that public, and you have to go into their Byzantine system of privacy controls in order to turn that off.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The New York Times noted not long ago that you had to click through 50 pages to set your privacy settings on Facebook.

RYAN SINGEL: Give Facebook some credit. The complicatedness means there’s a lot of choices. But their privacy policy has also grown to be longer than the U.S. Constitution, which The Times also pointed out.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: I guess the point here is that if your data is public, they can monetize the data and thereby keep the service free.

RYAN SINGEL: There’s not a whole lot of money in just letting people share photos and status updates with their friends, but there is a lot of money in knowing what brands you like and following you around the Web. Facebook is aiming to become the biggest display advertiser on the Internet, because they're going to be able to target ads to you based on the things you've told them.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I guess the person who is most excited about this prospect is Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, who argues endlessly for more and more openness on the part of Facebook users.

MARK ZUCKERBERG: The Web is at a really important turning point right now. Up until recently, the default on the Web has been that most things aren't social and most things don't use your real identity. We're building towards a Web where the default is social. Every application and product will be designed from the ground up to use real identity and friends.

RYAN SINGEL: Mark Zuckerberg likes to say that Facebook is just reflecting the changing privacy norms of the public, but Facebook is, I believe, forging that change, not so much reflecting it. I think it’s a little self-serving of him to say that, you know, we've all become more public people. A large part of that has to do with default settings that Facebook gives us. We're sort of being pushed into revealing more information. And now that Facebook is the place that these conversations happen, we kind of have to buy into that bargain just to be part of the conversation.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So where are we with regard to alternatives to Facebook?

RYAN SINGEL: I really like what OneSocialWeb is doing. The way that it works is decentralized. So if I want to communicate with the people who like Wired.com, where I write, then there’s a little section on Wired.com that has people’s photographs and pictures and profiles, and I can do the updates there, and it doesn't actually have to flow through Facebook. I think what Facebook’s shown us is that we all want to be part of more conversations. I just think that an open alternative needs to make it so that our data doesn't flow through one mega-corporation.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Fundamentally, is the furor being raised by a niche group of geeks that are in revolt? And you’re one of the geeks -


BROOKE GLADSTONE: - by the way, that I'm referring to here.

RYAN SINGEL: Oh, I'm certainly one of the geeks.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: I mean, it’s often been said that the average user will choose convenience over privacy every time.

RYAN SINGEL: There always is going to be that sort of lead group, but I think this lead group is telling us generally people are starting to feel uncomfortable with the size that Facebook has gotten to. It’s hurting Facebook because they have these grand ambitions, right? They don't just want to be the place that you share information with your friends. They really want to be the center of your digital identity online. And that’s freaking people out, even though they find it useful.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] What’s your opinion of Zuckerberg?

RYAN SINGEL: He’s a really interesting character. There’s a book about to come out, by David Kirkpatrick, I believe, from Fortune magazine. The excerpts that have come out have been fascinating. For instance, Microsoft came along and told Facebook they'd be happy to buy it for 15 billion dollars, and Mark Zuckerberg said no. And then they came back and they said, we'll buy it over a period of five years, so we'll let you stay in control. He said no again. This isn't about the money. And he really wants to sort of change the world, and he really wants that Facebook page to be the place that people define themselves to everyone else online. On Tuesday, Facebook’s public policy director, Tim Sparapani, said something that was, I think, a bit of a slip, when he said that the personalization that Facebook has offered to all the websites on the Internet - that they can add these “Like” buttons or add profile pictures from Facebook - he called that an “extraordinary gift to the public.” I think they really think that they're doing this amazing thing for the public and we're not thankful enough.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the gift to the public is the fact that their information can be shared with so many vendors out there.

RYAN SINGEL: I think they think this is an amazing gift, that from now on every website you’re going to go to is going to pull in all this information about what you like and what your friends like and allow those sites to personalize your experience based on that information. It’s not clear the public thinks of that as an extraordinary gift or they just think that might be a little bit creepy.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ryan, thank you so much.

RYAN SINGEL: Thanks for having me on.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ryan Singel is a staff writer for the Threat Level blog and the Epicenter blog on Wired.com.