Facebook's Privacy Problem

Coca-Cola wanted to teach the world to sing in the 1970s. Replace the word “sing” with the word “like” and fast forward forty years and you’ve got what Facebook wants to do. But instead of selling soft drinks, Like by Like, Facebook wants to learn as much about you as algorithmically possible, index it, dice it, slice it, and offer it to advertisers to sculpt ever more precise ads.

In my last post about Facebook, I detailed the reasons I think Facebook’s new Like button fails. I get what they’re doing but I think the company may finally be on the wrong side of history.

As Fred Vogelstein points out in his Wired piece on the subject, we’ve seen this movie before: Facebook changes the terms of service, there’s an initial uproar over the changes and privacy implications, Facebook tweaks things a bit, and everything settles down with users accepting the newly-tweaked Facebook.

I’ve thought for some time that people talk a good game about privacy but when it comes down to it, they’d rather have convenience and free stuff than their privacy. But this latest uproar hasn’t settled down; it’s getting louder.

I think this is less about privacy, though, than it is about transparency. People fee like they were duped by Facebook; they see through the old bait and switch and they don’t like it. While I think a lot of people are resigned to the fact that privacy is a concept whose definition is narrowing, they resent having the definition engineered for them.

In December of last year, one of Iconoculture’s (Iconoculture is a client of my employer, Tunheim Partners) trend predictions was the notion of a social media scale-back. IT security firm Sophos sponsored a recent survey showing that 60% of Facebook users were considering quitting the social networking site. A survey conducted in March revealed that nearly half of the respondents said social networks like Facebook were “not very” (32 percent) or “not at all” (17 percent) trustworthy.

People I know have told me they’ve deleted their Facebook profiles, which sounds bold until you consider that all you need to do is plug in your email address and Facebook will cheerfully restore your profile, data intact. Still, when Google–a company that has built an empire on its understanding of online behavior–offers the public a tool to scrub their own online behavior from Google Analytics (the company’s website traffic monitoring service), you know something’s up.

Time magazine’s cover story on Facebook & privacy this week quotes Mark Zuckerberg saying, “What people want isn’t complete privacy. It isn’t that they want secrecy. It’s that they want control over what they share and what they don’t.”

That’s probably true but desire for that control extends to the companies with which they share their data, Facebook chief amongst them.

The more technology does for us, the more it reveals what it could do for us; we begin to entertain possibilities we would never have imagined before. The more control we’re given, the more control we demand.

What really sold me that a cultural shift may be occurring was the fact that four New York University programming students could fully fund–through the Internet–an alternative, open source social networking platform in a matter of weeks as a result of Facebook’s overreach.

Diaspora promises to be a free, open source social networking platform that turns your computer into an individual Web server that stores your data with you, not a service, and grants access to it in a manner that you define. It is this model that we will ultimately migrate to.

Furthermore, as we begin to understand the monetary value Facebook places on our individual user data, the more we begin to wonder why we haven’t seen our cut.

Google and Amazon have pioneered the online revenue-sharing model with their AdSense and Associates programs, respectively.  Why couldn’t Diaspora not just grant sharply defined access to our personal data, but also define financial terms as well?

That might be a job for the Creative Commons; which defines the legal license you provide for your intellectual property online. The Creative Commons model could easily be adapted to a legal framework for use of personal data and financial compensation.

That’s what I think is on the horizon, anyway.

The complaints I’m hearing from individuals are that Facebook is using a bait and switch tactic to invade and expose their privacy. The complaints I hear from business people is that Facebook is getting too powerful; if the company is willing to do a bait and switch on their individual users, what’s to stop them from doing the same to businesses by deciding one day to charge them a mint to maintain their relationship with their customers through Facebook Fan (or “Like”) pages?

Tomorrow is Quit Facebook Day. For the record: I won’t be quitting. But I will be taking the Like button off my pages. They just ain’t working.

The e-Strategy Academy covers all aspects of digital marketing including search optimization & marketing, email marketing, social media marketing, video marketing, mobile marketing & public relations.