Facebook Tries to Navigate the Privacy Storm

After igniting a firestorm of criticism from privacy advocates, consumer groups and even governments over its privacy settings in the wake of its recent f8 conference, Facebook finally bowed to the onslaught and changed the way the social network handles privacy this week. Mark Zuckerberg wrote an op-ed piece in the Washington Post admitting that the company had moved too quickly with some of the changes — although he didn’t actually apologize for doing this, at least not in so many words — and that Facebook was committed to giving users control over what they shared on the network. But will it be enough to stop the backlash?

One of the things that has made Facebook’s changes a lightning rod for criticism is the perception that the company pushes its users to share more personal information because it wants to help advertisers target their ads better. In other words, the idea that the social network’s pro-sharing approach isn’t entirely altruistic. Zuckerberg specifically responded to that in his announcement of the new settings, saying the sharing features are unrelated to the company’s advertising business, and that Facebook does its own targeting of ads, so advertisers don’t see any of the information that gets shared.

The key question for the company is whether the latest changes, and Zuckerberg’s mea culpa piece in the Washington Post, will turn the growing tide of criticism that the company has been facing as a result of some of its privacy moves. The early indications are that it will likely not, at least not when it comes to the privacy groups and consumer advocates that have become its most vocal critics. Users may have continued to join the network despite all the privacy concerns, but these groups — and several different levels of government — show no signs of backing down.

Several consumer groups that had complained to the Federal Trade Commission about the company’s moves said they are still hoping the regulator investigates the social network, something the FTC says it is considering. Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy said the group wants “legislation to address this massive and stealth data collection that has emerged.” A spokesman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation said that while some of the changes were positive, the group still has “some fundamental concerns about the amount of user information being shared with third-party Facebook applications and web sites.” And the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee said on Friday that he has sent a letter to the company asking it to explain its privacy practices and is considering holding hearings.

Although some high-profile users have quit the social network in protest over its handling of privacy, in the long run the company has far more to worry about from the FTC and the House Judiciary Committee — not to mention federal privacy legislation that is already in the works. Losing a few thousand users is nothing compared to the pain that could be unleashed on the social network if it finds itself being regulated by the government. And that prospect isn’t just a nightmare for Facebook; it could become an issue for any other web service or social network that handles user data, including Google (which is already in some trouble of its own over the recent capture of personal data over open wireless networks) and Twitter. In this case, a rising tide may not lifts all boats so much as swamp all boats.

Question of the week

Will Facebook’s recent changes stem the tide of criticism over the company’s handling of privacy?
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