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Wednesday, 13 January 2010 21:32

A primer on privacy for Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg

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Mark Zuckerberg seems to have forgotten the true meaning of privacy. iTWire thought it might be able to help the Facebook founder and CEO remember...

So, according to Facebook founder and head honcho Mark Zuckerberg, people are "really comfortable" sharing information openly and with increasing numbers of others. What's more, Zuckerberg told the audience at an awards ceremony in San Francisco last weekend that 'social norms' have changed to the point where privacy is becoming less important.

Of all people Zuckerberg really ought to know that this just isn't the case. In all honesty, can he have truly forgotten the stink that was raised by members of his own social networking outfit just last year when he tried revising the terms and conditions of membership?

Back then tens of thousands of Facebook users got very vocal indeed to protest at what was seen as an affront to member privacy. Zuckerberg stated at the time that "...we wouldn't share your information in a way you wouldn't want. The trust you place in us as a safe place to share information is the most important part of what makes Facebook work".

Those weasel words did not stop the protests, and eventually Zuckerberg backtracked and returned to the previous set of Facebook terms and conditions. Of course, that did not stop him from having another go at revising things to better suit his vision of the social norm.

That didn't too well either, although it seems to have slipped conveniently off the Zuckerberg radar when making that speech as to just how much of a fuss kicked off at the end of the year when Facebook decided to share everything with everyone.

It seems to me that Zuckerberg would have appeared to have got confused between the type of information that bloggers like to share and the type of information that the vast majority of the online population would prefer stays private, or at least only shared with their express consent and in a way that is under their complete control.

Perhaps I can help clarify, Mr Zuckerberg, the difference between the two data sets by way of a couple of examples and offer a little advice?

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I have a blog which serves as a central landing point for the news stories and reviews which I write for online publications around the world. I share a paragraph of each story along with a link to the full posting in its original location, and am happy to do so.

The same blog also serves as a brief biography come advert for those who might be interested in employing me as a writer, and as a result I'm happy to share some details of my writing career, the awards I've won and my contact email.

What you won't find on my blog is my date of birth, my mother's maiden name, my home address, my bank account number or even my telephone number. I'm not happy about that kind of data being in the public domain, I prefer to carefully control who I share access to personal information of this sort with.

Which is why, even though I use Facebook less and less these days (I am very active on Twitter as happygeek for those who care) when the service summarily changed the way it shares members information I changed the defaults to ensure my privacy was maintained.

You see, like many Facebook members I have spoken to, I have posted photos and conversations and contact data there in the belief that it was only available to those other people I chose to connect with, and not pretty much anyone with an Internet connection. 

Listen up Zuckerberg, just because social networking is increasingly popular and just because it is increasingly culturally accepted and expected to communicate online that does not mean that it has become a 'social norm' to accept that there is no such thing as privacy in the digital age.

In fact, it seems to me, the only people who are seriously suggesting this very thing, and have been trying to convince everyone else that it must be true for years now, are those who stand to capitalise the most from an erosion of personal control over data sharing.

What Zuckerberg doesn't want you to know, and why when he said social norm he meant business preference will be revealed in the third and final part of this very personal privacy primer.

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Why would anyone want to let everyone see their stuff, for want of a better phrase to describe the kind of social norm that Zuckerberg seems to be describing?

Why, for that matter, make it the default to let everyone see your stuff unless you actively go and change your settings to say that they cannot, as Zuckerberg decided for Facebook recently?

The answer to the second question is easy, and I'd argue that it would be to ensure as many people as possible make it so and don't actually exercise control over the privacy of that data.

Which sort of ties into the answer to the first question, and that is the 'anyone' concerned is not the consumer, not the member, but rather the business which can then leverage the value of the social graph and can ultimately monetise the oneness of that information.

From data aggregators to application developers, the Facebook social graph represents a hugely valuable resource and that value increases as more people expose themselves for all to see and scrape and exploit.

So there you have it, when Zuckerberg says social norm he means business value, and when he says sharing information he means exploiting information for gain. At least that's the way it appears to me, and to be frank I cannot see any other way of interpreting this no matter how much Facebook PR might flap its arms and claim the media misunderstands Mark.

What really narks me though, it has to be said, is that the CEO of a business which is built around an expectation of privacy within a social resource can conveniently claim that actually users don't expect nor want that privacy and are happy for their information to be used in this way.

To sum up then, Mark, here's the bit you seem to be missing: yes people are happy to share information, but only the information they want to share and with those people they are happy to share it with. That is the social norm, and please do not forget it or worse try and use Facebook to turn it into something else, something more profitable perhaps...

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