The privacy issue ghost haunting online companies is once more back to the forefront of the news today as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged in an op-ed in the Washington Post, that his company "just missed the mark" on its privacy settings and pledged to implement changes "as soon as possible".
Last week, it was Google who owed that it had "failed badly" as it emerged the search giant's Street View cars had collected payload data without permission across Europe and the U.S.
This time, it is Zuckerberg's turn to go through the drill and apologize to Facebook users for two main reasons: privacy settings and personal data transfer to marketers.
Two of its users, Matthew Milan and Joseph Dee, even went as far as to create a "Quit Facebook Day" webpage, calling on all disgruntled users to pledge to leave Facebook on May 31st. "Facebook makes it damn difficult for the average user to understand or manage this. We also don't think Facebook has much respect for you or your data, especially in the context of the future," the initiators of the movement explained in a "Why are we quitting?" paragraph.
Facebook got the 'hint'. "Sometimes we move too fast -- and after listening to recent concerns, we're responding. (...) Simply put, many of you thought our controls were too complex. Our intention was to give you lots of granular controls; but that may not have been what many of you wanted. We just missed the mark," Zuckerberg wrote in response to those fears and critics.
"In the coming weeks, we will add privacy controls that are much simpler to use."
Consumer data protection
The second bone of contention is Facebook's transmission of personal user data to marketers. Again, it is a news article that set fire to the situation: the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook and MySpace had been giving personal information about their users to advertisers by way of not bothering to scramble the user IDs when the latter clicked on an ad.
The report quickly became a trending topic, widely retweeted across Twitterland and spread wide and far across the globe.
The newspaper then updated the information, stating that the two companies had tweaked their codes after the report came out, in order to avoid such unwanted data leak.
The Journal said it had identified Google's DoubleClick and Yahoo's Right Media as receivers of such info. Google had responded in a statement that the company "doesn't seek in any way to make any use of any user names or IDs that their URLs may contain," while, Anne Toth, Yahoo's head of privacy touted: "We prohibit clients from sending personally identifiably information to us... We have told them. 'We don't want it. You shouldn't be sending it to us. If it happens to be there, we are not looking for it."
Zuckerberg's response ? "We will also give you an easy way to turn off all third-party services." He also reiterated Facebook's code of conduct - or shall we say pledge as follows:
- "You have control over how your information is shared.
- We do not share your personal information with people or services you don't want.
- We do not give advertisers access to your personal information.
- We do not and never will sell any of your information to anyone.
- We will always keep Facebook a free service for everyone.
- We are working hard to make these changes available as soon as possible."
Facebook earlier this month has hired a former FTC chairman (2001-2004) Tim Muris to help on its privacy issues, as privacy groups and senators in the U.S. had already filed complains with the administration.
Ballmer to the rescue
Microsoft has also been grappling with privacy issues for a while. At the Citizenship Accelerator Summit, CEO Steve Ballmer gave his point of view on security, privacy and Facebook. He called Zuckerberg one of the "good guys". Here is the video from TechFlash
Can We Have A Choice ?
Spooked by the noise around the privacy settings, I used social networking site LinkedIn to ask the question of quitting Facebook to a number of groups I belong to. Most of the people who took time to respond were clear on this:
- Facebook is a great tool and leaving it would be mostly detrimental to their business / activity
- One has the ultimate responsibility for input: don't post anything that you do not want anyone outside you closest ones to know
- Even if people were to quit Facebook, it has 400 million users today and any such move would impact the social site marginally. However, the publicity itself around those privacy issues are more likely to hurt harder.
Let's put it this way: I don't see the fuss about the privacy setting being elaborate. In fact, I quite enjoy it and would like Facebook to give users the choice between simplified and advanced settings. Simplified settings mean that the company inevitably will make some choices for you since you do not want to make them yourself. And that to me is the worst. I quite like Zuckerberg's way of saying it and I'd much prefer a "granular" approach that gives maximum control over my data.
How do you feel about all this?