Facebook eats crow over the ‘death of privacy’

6 May 2010

Facebook’s credibility as a safe place to keep personal data has been brought into question after it emerged a glitch allowed users’ chat messages and pending friend requests to be made visible to all friends.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s brash statements that the age of privacy is over and that privacy is no longer a social norm has been smashed into smithereens after the company had to issue a statement on a privacy glitch that exposed private user data.

“For a limited period of time, a bug permitted some users’ chat messages and pending friend requests to be made visible to their friends by manipulating the ‘preview my profile’ feature of Facebook privacy settings,” a statement from Facebook read.

“When we received reports of the problem, our engineers promptly diagnosed it and temporarily disabled the chat function. We also pushed out a fix to take care of the visible friend requests which is now complete,” Facebook said.

‘Privacy no longer matters’

You see, while Zuckerberg has detailed plans to redefine the internet and trumpets ‘privacy no longer matters’, I suspect there are audible groans coming from the back of the room at Facebook that privacy is actually essential, very essential, if Facebook is to become a trusted zone for the future of media and the onset of virtual currency.

Facebook in recent months changed the way users’ personal profile information is treated, requiring data about an individual’s hometown, education and hobbies be tied to public pages on these topics.

You see, Mr Zuckerberg, people care very, very deeply about privacy. Yes, they’ll rant and rave in their status bars about politics or what they got up to on a night out, but the beauty of the Facebook engine is context.

Context, why? Well, while no ordinary person has in reality more than 150 friends, they still feel comfortable expressing themselves to acquaintances because, well, there’s context. Sure, it’s not like it’s some random stranger waiting to pounce and grab your credit card data or follow you home, but you feel safe enough to express an opinion.

But, Mr Zuckerberg, even in the context of a college or schoolyard, you don’t exactly want people to know what you’re saying about someone who may be standing a couple of yards away, or talking about relationship issues with a friend of an ex who well, just may be on your friends list.

Identities kept private

While people are indeed more open about their information, even on sites like Texts from Last Night, where everything seems to hang out, users do not reveal their identity.

To make brash statements about privacy being over is reckless in a time when brands around the world crave information to market to people more accurately. Users like social media, they just don’t like the idea that privacy is at risk.

Recently, Facebook overtook Google as the world’s most visited site. Congratulations. But one thing Google must guarantee if it is to remain at the top of its game is respect of user privacy. Google CEO Eric Schmidt said as much during an interview late last year. He said: “We have this thing called the Data Liberation Front – I could never understand why they named it that – whose sole job it is to make it so possible to leave Google.

“I’m not aware of any other company would have such a policy. It’s real. We depend on that balance from end users and if we were to do something which in their judgment alone crosses that line we would lose them for ever. That’s ultimately the arbiter, this user-sensibility.

“An example of this would be that if we violated somebody’s privacy with respect to their searches or email or caused a problem or tragedy, well that would be terrible. That may help you understand that as long as we’re on the side of pro-consumer I think we’re just fine.

“We explained to the European Commission that this is a pro-consumer strategy and I hope we have credibility by virtue of all of these activities we can demonstrate that we are sincere,” Schmidt said.

In other words, Google cannot tolerate a single breach of privacy and cannot for a second be blasé about a user’s privacy. If it is, as Schmidt says, it will lose users forever.

At the same time, Google with its Buzz social networking system isn’t averse to trouble over privacy and will need to be very careful on how it handles the issue.

Mr Zuckerberg, I think you should take the same tack.

By John Kennedy

Photos: Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg (above) and Google CEO Eric Schmidt (below)

Eric Schmidt


John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years