The Media Has a Field Day With Facebook and Privacy (or Lack Thereof)…Does Anybody But the Media Care?

First thing last week, The Financial Times said that Facebook hired a former Bush regulator, ex-FTC chief Tim Muris, as a consultant to make the company’s case to regulators.  That’s obviously in answer to the news of the week before about the  proposed Boucher bill, which would require publishers who use third-party data gatherers (like ad networks) to provide clear opt-out instructions before placing a cookie on a user’s  computer.  This is a pretty good move on FB’s part, since the current FTC has given every indication that it cares deeply about online privacy. Consumer protection head David Vladeck has taken pro-privacy positions, as has newly appointed commissioner Julie Brill. But that was the beginning of the week, and as days went by, and as media stories got more heated, it seemed more and more unlikely that FB will be able to avoid litigation, no matter who they hire, unless they revise their instant personalization policies.

The media has latched onto how convoluted the opt-out process is, and the deluge of stories gets more and more interesting and more difficult to avoid.  You have probably seen the Times story by Nick Bilton (remember him?  He was the one whose Twitter interview with a FB employee revealed Mark Zuckerberg’s lack of concern over privacy) revealing that FB’s privacy policy is longer than the Constitution. And you probably saw the chart that the Times published (which has made its way all over the web and back again) showing the tangled web of 170 options that you would have to go through to manage your privacy.  The Huffington Post, meanwhile, posted a handy 2 minute video telling you how you can control your profile, just like you could in the olden days, meaning last year, or even a few months ago. (Also see the “Evolution of Facebook”, an animated graphic that shows the changes in FB’s privacy policies since its inception.) The Times also asked readers to post questions on its Bits blog to Elliott Schrage, FB’s VP of public policy.  In his response to readers’ questions he says that FB will “work to make our settings easier and simpler.”  In another redundant statement, he says that  “Our desire to innovate and create new opportunities for people to share sometimes conflicts with our goal to create an easy and accessible user experience.” His final statement is, ”if you’re not comfortable sharing, don’t.”

Anti-FB sentiment is running high enough for current Facebook users to try to start movements to either Quit Facebook forever (May 31) or just boycott it for a day (June 6).

The media seems to be pretty upset that Mark Zuckerberg has shown not only no remorse, but appears to be completely unconcerned about all the negative attention.  And when you come right down to it, there’s no for him reason to be concerned.  Because, here’s the thing.  How much do users care? The Facebook Protest Day has about 2400 followers. Quit Facebook has 12,000 people who say they are committed to quitting.  This is pretty impressive, but hardly makes a dent in the other 400 million users of the site.  Whatever Zuckerberg is trying to push, people use Facebook to connect with each other, not with advertisers. And as a connection to your actual friends, Facebook is still great, as long as they all stay there. Also of import to media professionals is whatever privacy policies the government comes up with as a result of this brouhaha (added to Google’s, added to Comcast’s, etc etc.etc).  This could have implications for your own site, content, or product in the future.

Here’s the other thing.  Why should you care?  As a media professional, this whole mess is absolutely important to pay attention to.  We should never forget how fickle the social media using public is, nor should we ever take for granted either the obliviousness or the good graces of that public.  The Open Graph initiative is terrific for advertisers, and so far the majority of Facebook users are happy enough with their personal connections not to care about how much of their information is available to the whole world, or have figured out the byzantine opt-out settings to their own satisfaction. Facebook’s next initiative is about to launch – it will allow people to instantly broadcast their present location.  Because of those 400 million users, and their attachment to letting people know what they’re up to, this will  be quite a boon to local businesses.   It becomes another form of word-of-mouth advertising.   The hope is that the privacy mess doesn’t turn FB into a house of cards.  Remember MySpace?  The next big thing might just really be the next big thing at Facebook’s expense.

And four kids are hoping to become the next big thing.  Inspired by a talk by Eben Moglen about freedom and ownership online,  these NYU students, “ started discussing what a distributed social network would look like, but coders like us can never just talk—so we started building. “  So they put their idea on hoping to raise money.  Their idea,, is a social network that gives users total control of their information.  In their video, one of the developers, Raphael Sofaer, 19, says, “In our real lives, we talk to each other…We don’t need to hand our messages over to a hub. What Facebook gives you as a user isn’t all that hard to do. All the little games, the little walls, the little chat, aren’t really rare things. The technology already exists.” Another one of the developers, Mark Salzberg, 20, says that when you give information to Facebook “you’re giving it up forever. The value that they give us is negligible in the scale of what they are doing and what we are giving up in all of our privacy.”

The good news in this story is that these kids thought they needed $10,000 to develop their project. They gave themselves 40 days to get it.  They raised the money in 12 days, and as of now, due to some great publicity from the New York Times, they have raised over $178,000 and have 5400 or so backers. Whether this will ever take off is a big question, because their concept sounds pretty complicated for a lay user (it works a lot like WordPress, if I understand it correctly), but it sure is interesting.

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