Facebook CEO challenges the social norm of privacy

People share without concern for privacy, Zuckerberg claims -- to the surprise of those who challenge Facebook's policies.
  • Ian Paul (PC World (US online))
  • 12 January, 2010 06:28

Lost in the flurry of products announcements at last week's Consumer Electronics Show was Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's suggestion on Friday that some aspects of privacy are a thing of the past. The Facebook founder's comments were part of an interview with TechCrunch's Michael Arrington during last week's Crunchie awards presentation.

"People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that's evolved over time," Zuckerberg said. "We view it as our role in the system to constantly be innovating and be updating what our system is to reflect what the current social norms are." Zuckerberg then pointed to Facebook's recent privacy policy change that made user's key information open by default as an example of the social network's willingness to reflect "current social norms."

But Zuckerberg's belief that Facebook's latest privacy policy is what people want ignores the fact that privacy concerns have continually dogged Facebook. The company has been accused on several occasions of not being in step with the needs and privacy concerns of its users. With that in mind, let's revisit some of Facebook's privacy problems to see how well Facebook really has reflected "current social norms."


The privacy issue that started it all was Facebook Beacon. The system was supposed to provide a way for Facebook users to share actions they took on third-party Website such as purchasing movie tickets on Fandango or video games on Game Fly.

But Beacon quickly fell out of favor with Facebook users, and a 2008 class action lawsuit was filed against the social network "alleging that Facebook and its affiliates did not give users adequate notice and choice about Beacon and the collection and use of users' personal information." As a result of the Beacon fallout, Facebook recently agreed to set up a $9.5 million fund for a nonprofit foundation dedicated to supporting online privacy, safety, and security.

Terms of Service Change

The social network found itself in hot water just over a year ago after Facebook made a sudden change to its terms of service. The change seemed to give Facebook absolute control over any content you shared on the social network. of the new TOS by saying Facebook "wouldn't share your information in a way you wouldn't want."

But Zuckerberg quickly lost control of the situation after the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) threatened to lodge a formal complaint against Facebook with the Federal Trade Commission. To quell EPIC's concerns, Facebook moved to an open governance format that allowed Facebook users to comment and vote on changes to the social network's terms of service.

Canadian Smackdown

Just a few months after Facebook reconciled its terms of service with its user base, the Canadian government determined that Facebook had run afoul of Canadian privacy laws. As a result, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada issued a set of recommendations for Facebook to get back in line with Canadian policy.

Some of the key changes Facebook agreed to include improved protection against third-party data mining and clearer communication about what happens to your data if you choose to deactivate or delete your Facebook account.

Privacy Settings Change

Finally, we come to the changes Facebook made to your personal privacy settings in December. The new changes encouraged you to share more of your Facebook information with the world, but still allowed you to keep some information set to private if you so chose. But under the new settings, some personal information is made publicly available with almost no way to protect it including your profile picture, fan pages, gender, geographic region, and networks.

Privacy watchdogs and public interest groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union have criticized a lot of Facebook's new privacy changes. Responding to some of these criticisms, Facebook backed off one new privacy setting that made your friends list publicly available, and Facebook now gives you the option to make it private.

EPIC and nine other privacy and consumer groups took their concerns over Facebook's new privacy settings one step further and filed a complaint against Facebook with the FTC. The complaint accuses Facebook of making changes to its policies that are deceptive and unfair.

So with all the problems that Facebook has had to endure as a result of its handling of privacy issues, can Zuckerberg honestly say that Facebook's privacy policies reflect "current social norms"? That seems more like wishful thinking on Zuckerberg's part to me.

Connect with Ian on Twitter (@ianpaul).