By Adam Dickter / Top Tech News. Updated January 12, 2010.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's assertion that the public is largely giving up concerns about privacy in favor of more online sharing has caused a stir and ignited debate in the tech world. The social-networking giant has persistently clashed with privacy advocates in court.
Among the dissenters is a Stanford law professor who researches and lectures on Internet privacy. He said Zuckerberg's assessment conflicts with recent academic findings.
"The picture is clearly more nuanced than Mr. Zuckerberg's comments would suggest," said Ryan Calo, a fellow at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University's Law School. "I've seen several recent studies out of Berkeley and Carnegie Mellon, for instance, suggesting that people continue to value their privacy and are even willing to pay a premium for better privacy."
Getting Lost in the Crowd
Calo, author of the forthcoming book People Can Be So Fake: A New Dimension to Privacy and Technology Scholarship, said private speech is a driving force behind the Internet.
"[It] permits a previously unimaginable amount of anonymous speech," said Calo. "And if you look at broader offline trends, we're moving in droves from small towns, where everyone knows our name, to cities, where greater anonymity is the norm."
In an interview during the Crunchies award ceremony celebrating last year's best technology accomplishments, Zuckerberg painted his company as prophetic by reasoning in 2004 that the "social norm" in the near future would be more online sharing.
"People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people," Zuckerberg said.
Michael Zimmer, an assistant professor in the school of information studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an associate at the Center for Information Policy Research who has done extensive research on social media, said Zuckerberg's comments seemed calculated to make users and advertisers feel more at ease with sharing online.
"That's the world he wants, so he makes statements to make it seem as if it is true," Zimmer said. "Social-network sites need users to share information, and any attempts to limit that sharing is contrary to SNS business models."
So while increasing privacy controls are added, Zimmer said, "they typically are insufficient, and rhetoric like Zuckerberg's is just another version of this: Tell people that no one cares about privacy anymore, and then more people will think it's OK to share their information."
Zimmer took issue with Zuckerberg's assertion that "blogging has taken off in a huge way" as proof of a shift in social norms. "The fact that some people choose to blog about some aspect of their lives -- and most aren't even about one's personal life -- is in no way related to whether people are more willing to share details with networks of friends on social-networking sites. The two spheres are completely different; thus the correlation is simply invalid."
Calo agrees. "At a minimum, it does not follow that privacy is disappearing as a value merely because some people are comfortable sharing certain aspects of their lives to an online community they can limit and predefine," he said.
Two days after Zuckerberg's comments, a culture blog, Rumpus, posted an interview with a person described only as a Facebook employee, who offered some insights into how the company uses members' data.
"We track everything," the employee said. "Every photo you view, every person you're tagged with, every wall post you make, and so forth ... When you make any sort of interaction on Facebook -- upload a photo, click on somebody's profile, update your status, change your profile information." But she said that information is used only to enhance the users' experience, such as making the friends he or she most often connects with appear first in the search window.
The employee told Rumpus she knew of two people who were fired for inappropriately accessing user pages. One of them, she said, "went in and manipulated some other person's data, changed their religious views or something like that. I don't remember exactly what it was, but he got reported, got found out, got fired."
The employee confessed to some early trespasses herself. "I did abuse the profile-viewing permission at several initial points when I started at Facebook," she said. She added that at one point certain employees had a master password that allowed access to all Facebook accounts. But that password only worked within the Facebook headquarters, from its IP address, and has since been eliminated.
The Facebook employee told Rumpus that while the total number of Facebook accounts is about 300 million, the number of regular users, excluding fake, inactive or duplicate accounts, is closer to 250 million. Zuckerberg has cited 350 million users.
While the blog did not name the employee, she may end up with some privacy concerns of her own. The Rumpus blogger, Phil Wong, noted that the employee is female, where she works, and that she gave him a tour of the facility during which he signed in with security guards. The employee also mentioned details of investigations of account abuse she carried out, which might make it relatively easy for Facebook executives to uncover her identity.