Google, Facebook & Privacy

While people are busy attacking Google over privacy and calling for the breakup of the company, Facebook could later emerge as the real privacy villain of our Internet story.

Om Malik details the anticipated announcements at today’s F8 Facebook developer event, one of which will involve location. More broadly Facebook is stepping up its plan to insinuate itself into every corner of the Internet. Facebook Connect, which is now a foundation stone of many sites (e.g.,, is only the beginning. 

In defense of some of the company’s moves, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been widely quoted saying that privacy was no longer a “social norm”:

Talking in San Francisco over the weekend at the Crunchie Awards, which recognise technological achievements, the 25 year-old web entrepreneur said: “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people.”

He went on to say that privacy was no longer a ‘social norm’ and had just evolved over time.

Giving him the benefit of the doubt, Zuckerberg may not have meant that privacy was gone but that privacy expectations had changed. While certainly true in some respects that statement emerges as more aspirational than descriptive of the current reality. The truth is more complex: people share information online but they may not be aware of the full implications of that sharing. If they were they might not share quite as much. 

The privacy furor over Google Buzz, Facebook’s past privacy battles and recent data argue that privacy is very much still alive. As I wrote on Monday:

A very new study, based on a 2009 telephone survey with 1,000 younger and older US adults, shows that younger users do in fact care about privacy. The authors of the report wrote, “We conclude then that that young-adult Americans have an aspiration for increased privacy even while they participate in an online reality that is optimized to increase their revelation of personal data.”

The AP summarized the findings at a high level:

  • 88 percent of people of all ages said they have refused to give out information to a business because they thought it was too personal or unnecessary. Among young adults, 82 percent have refused, compared with 85 percent of those over 65.
  • 86 percent believe that anyone who posts a photo or video of them on the Internet should get their permission first, even if that photo was taken in public. Among young adults 18 to 24, 84 percent agreed — not far from the 90 percent among those 45 to 54.
  • 40 percent of adults ages 18 to 24 believe executives should face jail time if their company uses someone’s personal information illegally — the same as the response among those 35 to 44 years old.

Moreover, yesterday it was reported that, a site that rates “privacy, openness and security,” gave Facebook a “2 out of 5,” essentially a failing grade according to Forbes

The new site, which was co-created by Stanford University Law fellow Ryan Calo last year and went into beta in March, has rated Facebook’s privacy significantly lower than that of other platforms like Twitter and the iPhone.

Data is being used more and more aggressively by ad networks, publishers and others in ad targeting and profiling. It’s always said by companies that provide and use the data that there’s no personally identifiable information and that profiles and behavior are aggregated anonymously.

Part of Facebook’s ambition (as with Beacon at one time) is likely to provide its user data to third party sites to improve targeting. There is a scenario wherein Facebook becomes the equivalent of an Internet-wide ad network with demographic, location and interest-based targeting data available to third parties. 

I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that Facebook is being “evil” but the company is aggressively pushing the boundaries of privacy in its own self interest and toward new business models. Witness, as one example, the recent move to make all default settings public — a move partly designed to compete with Twitter. 

As Facebook has grown and become more dominant it has become somewhat “intoxicated” (perhaps like Google or Microsoft before it) with its own plans and power. It is quite possible (and I’m hopeful) that Facebook will be very careful as it pushes into this next phase of development and make everything opt-in with full disclosures to users. But it’s also possible that it won’t do those things and will rely partly on users’ inaction, inattention or lack of complete understanding about what’s being done with their data. 

If the “devil” (rather than the angel) on Facebook’s shoulder wins then it will be necessary for third parties, privacy advocates and perhaps the FTC to push back and keep the site from crossing too many privacy boundaries. Indeed, if the devil wins then privacy advocates may find that their current complaints and objections to Google and its policies look quaint in retrospect.

7 Responses to “Google, Facebook & Privacy”

  1. Google, Facebook & Privacy « Screenwerk « Chumpette Says:

    […] more here: Google, Facebook & Privacy « Screenwerk Posted by chumpette on April 21st, 2010 Tags: Facebook, anticipated, breakup, busy-attacking, […]

  2. Facebook | Google, Facebook & Privacy « Screenwerk « Christinereview's Weblog Says:

    […] Facebook | Google, Facebook & Privacy « Screenwerk Posted on April 21, 2010 by christinereview While people are busy attacking Google over privacy and calling for the breakup of the company, Facebook could turn into the real privacy villain. Om Malik details the anticipated announcements at today’s F8 Facebook developer event, Read more […]

  3. Tim Cohn Says:

    I wonder if Zuckerberg would be of the same opinion if Facebook made money without having to mine the private lives of its users?

  4. Terry Howard Says:

    You call it “mining the personal lives of its users” but have you ever used the ad platform? You plug in some pretty basic ranges; age, sex, geography; a keyword to limit by what people have on their profile (could be occupation, interest, whatever) and you get a volume number… not someone’s picture, their home address, the last book they read, but a single numerical value of how many people that fits in their network. If you want to be concerned with online privacy on Facebook, you ought to be less concerned about ad targeting and more concerned about posting that you’re out of town or pictures of your kids in the tub for everyone to see including the bevy of random people you friended to up the size of your Mafia.

    You do realize though, that more “mining” means you get ads for things of value and use to yourself, as opposed to, oh, I don’t know, “See who’s Googling You” beside a picture of a hot chick that links to nothing whatsoever about Googling but a pitch for a dating site (whether you are marked as married or not). Without targeting the advertising consumers receive shifts heavily towards the lowest common denominator by definition. Consider also that ad targeting is the only way small businesses can afford to effectively play in the online space. Smart ad targeting = smart advertisers = more relevant connections to consumers = stronger economy. Here we are in a recession, vacant store fronts all up and down every road in the country, and we’re donning our tin foil hats to try and take down a way to anonymously improve the relevance of ads to consumers that improves the effectiveness of advertising dollars and provides a better way for those on a shoestring budget to grow their business. Ad targeting is not the monster we have made it out to be and collectively, we look like all those uninformed judges we make fun of for not knowing the difference between a cell phone and email.

  5. Greg Sterling Says:

    Aggressive targeting requires transparency and some measure of consumer control. Yes, we want better ads and yes, in many cases, targeting can bring that. But the data collection that supports targeting is also something that isn’t entirely benign.

    So there needs to be a balance. I think the Google solution of an ad preferences and privacy manager is the right one and it’s the approach that the IAB is moving toward.

    But simply to say that targeting makes everything better and consumers shouldn’t care whether or how much they’re being tracked is an idea I don’t agree with.

  6. Terry Howard Says:

    Well, I never said they shouldn’t care, but out of all the ways personal information is vulnerable and being acted upon maliciously, ad targeting is at the bottom of that list, if not the last. We are focusing so much attention on it as a privacy concern, yet people are out there still using “password” as a “password”. They access their bank accounts at Starbucks over free WiFi. They post their exact location and travel plans to the entire public web via Twitter. Last month I was sitting in the terminal in LaGuardia and I saw no less than 3 shared drives in my finder, with 100% guest read and write access enabled.

    Take all that common place stuff most people don’t think twice about and compare it to Facebook using 100% volunteered profile information (calling it “data collection” is not at all accurate) to match up advertising and that’s the point I’m making. It’s completely silly to me that this is a big hairy stink that we’re taking all the way to the Congress. This never occurred over even more far reaching long standing methods of selling targeted lists for direct advertising between industries credit cards, print publishers and brick and mortar retailers have been doing for decades. As far back as I can remember you could purchase a list (and later CD) of actual names, phone numbers, addresses, birth dates, household income, etc… based on purchasing histories, whether or not you own/rent, invest, etc… But, because it’s the internet (where we actually have mechanisms for it to be anonymous and protect consumers) it’s suddenly the biggest threat we have to our privacy. I think it’s an issue that is completely out of perspective right now. Sensationalized.

  7. Chirpir News | Google, Facebook & Privacy « Screenwerk Says:

    […] Read full story […]

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