Shrugging off his company's long bouts with privacy concerns, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said during the weekend that sharing information online is the new "social norm."
"When we first started Facebook in my dorm room in Harvard [in 2004], people asked me why would I want to have any information at all on the Internet," the 25-year-old Zuckerberg said at the annual Crunchies awards ceremony sponsored by TechCrunch. "But the social norm has evolved over time."
Clad in jeans, sneakers and a hooded sweatshirt, Zuckerberg told TechCrunch's Mike Arrington that "People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people ... 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."
Push Back Against Critics
The comments raised some eyebrows, given substantial indications of concerns lately about privacy and Facebook.
"I'm not sure I understand where that comment came from," said Interpret Vice President Michael Gartenberg. "In particular, it seems that Facebook users are taking privacy as an issue and given the response to updated privacy settings recently, it would seem consumers do care quite a bit what they share and who they share it with."
Zuckerberg's comments come just a month after the latest user information flap for the social-network giant, which says it has 350 million users. Last month the company responded to concerns that information -- such as friend lists, geography, networks and fan pages -- could be easily accessed via searches. Users may now make them private.
In 2008, the company settled a class-action lawsuit alleging that its Beacon program, integrating the web site with those of retailers like Blockbuster, Overstock.com, Fandango and Zappos, made users' activity outside Facebook public without adequately warning them.
The settlement, of which individual users can opt out, involved paying $9.5 million to set up a nonprofit Safety Advisory Board.
Facebook has also battled the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which complained to the Federal Trade Commission about its practices. As a result, Facebook announced Facebook Principles, a system of announcing privacy changes and allowing users to comment on them before they are implemented. The EPIC complaint was supported by the American Library Association, the Center for Digital Democracy, and the Consumer Federation of America.
The Canadian government also sparred with Facebook last July, forcing the company to protect users against phishing and data mining. The country's privacy commissioner, Jane Stoddard, said Facebook's retention of data from closed Facebook accounts violated the rights of some 12 million Canadian users under the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act.
But Zuckerberg boasted that his company was ahead of its time in anticipating that users would want to share more, not less, information.
"A lot of companies would be trapped by the conventions and their legacies of what they've built, doing a privacy change for 350 million users is not the type of thing that a lot of companies would do," Zuckerberg said. "But we viewed that as a really important thing, to always keep a beginner's mind and think: What would we do if we were starting the company now, and starting the site now, and we decided that these would be the social norms now and we just went for it."
But critics say that given the amount of opposition Facebook has encountered over its policies, and the legal bills it has racked up, the prophet mantle may be premature.
"Facebook's incentive is entirely to move toward more openness," wrote columnist Derek Thompson of The Atlantic. "It's one thing to admit that a business is a business. It's another to pretend that your business objectives just happen to line up perfectly with your users' wishes, when you know very well that the opposite is true."