Facebook, the FTC and Privacy

So Facebook lost its battle with the FTC on charges it was facing amidst privacy concerns. Concerns that have been going on for the last couple years. This is a huge deal, and I ultimately think this will help Facebook double their efforts in ensuring user privacy managed and communicated clearly to users. Stuff you make private, should always stay that way, and vice versa.

From the FTC:

The proposed settlement bars Facebook from making any further deceptive privacy claims, requires that the company get consumers’ approval before it changes the way it shares their data, and requires that it obtain periodic assessments of its privacy practices by independent, third-party auditors for the next 20 years.

I’m a Facebook user, among the 800 million others. I don’t hold a grudge against the service for some of its slip ups. Yes, they haven’t been perfect and certainly could have done a much better job when they launched the new privacy controls. The company is certainly learning fast from their mistakes. For better or worse, I’ve been able to communicate and stay in touch with good friends in a far more efficient way than how I could before. There are things that piss me off about the UI and UX of their product too, but ultimately I find myself sharing more and more information publicly. I, like Jeff Jarvis, believe in the power of publicness.

When Facebook launched their new smart lists feature earlier this year, coupled with the option to subscribe to anyones status updates, I now have no need for a separate Facebook page dedicated to my weblog. I didn’t get much use for it, and I felt that just cross-posting updates from this website to yet another service felt redundant. Since these new features were released, I find myself setting my sharing preference to “public” more and more.

Earlier today, Mark Zuckerberg published a piece on Facebook’s weblog about the FCC’s ruling, and outlined in excruciating detail how this decision will affect their business going forward. You can digest what Zuckerberg is saying as purely fluffy PR speak, which is the cynical way of looking at things, or you can choose to believe his and Facebook’s intentions are in every way sincere. My take? Let me first reiterate a small comment made.

I founded Facebook on the idea that people want to share and connect with people in their lives, but to do this everyone needs complete control over who they share with at all times. This idea has been the core of Facebook since day one. When I built the first version of Facebook, almost nobody I knew wanted a public page on the internet. That seemed scary. But as long as they could make their page private, they felt safe sharing with their friends online. Control was key.

Indeed, control is the key, and he goes on to admit Facebook’s mistakes and failures along the way, but hey, they’re learning. One of the reasons why I’m optimistic about the company is that Zuckerberg has been more or less reiterating this statement for years on end. Thus far, Facebook has grown its user base beyond most peoples comprehension, probably even more so for Zuckerberg.

Building a social network of this size, and keeping it fresh, exciting and safe is a herculean task. There are going to be bumps along the way, mistakes will be made and they will even lose some users. What’s important is that Facebook focuses with laser intensity to ensure a solid user data protection model is set in place, along with simple and easy to understand privacy controls that don’t change often.