Do You Trust This Face? GQ on Mark Zuckerberg

Following up on my earlier exploration of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s goal of “getting people to want to put up their full name, a real picture, mobile phone number” and other personal information on his website, GQ magazine has published a feature on Mr. Zuckerberg, titled “Boy Genius of the Year: Do You Trust This Face?” The piece does a fine job profiling him, detailing his “information wants to be free” mantra, and highlighting some of the privacy concerns.

The opening paragraphs include this realization:

…Zuckerberg possesses what is quite possibly the most valuable database of consumer information in the history of man: everything that is, and ever has been, posted to Facebook by its users. That trove of private user information is the site’s greatest asset — it prompted Microsoft to pay $240 million for a stake in Facebook at the end of 2007, making Zuckerberg’s enterprise worth as much as $15 billion — but it’s also something of a curse. Facebook is only worth those billions if Zuckerberg and his team can come up with some way to profit from its users.

And later concludes that:

The only thing standing in his way is changing how you think about privacy.

I was interviewed (about 3 times) by the GQ reporter to provide my perspective on Zuckerberg’s intentions with all our personal information at his disposal. My reflections were condensed into a one-liner:

Zuckerberg and those who surround him tend to be relentlessly forward-looking on privacy: The issue for them is not how to protect users’ current sense of privacy but to shape their willingness to share in the future. They often cite Facebook’s News Feed feature, which broadcasts users’ activity on their friends’ home pages, as an example of how privacy concerns are often overblown. (News Feed initially met with widespread user protest but is now one of the most popular aspects of the site.) Such talk sends privacy-watchdog groups into fits. “Zuckerberg’s argument seems to often be that information wants to be free and he’s just trying to facilitate that,” says Michael Zimmer, a technology and privacy scholar at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. “But that ignores the notion of what happens when you make information available to everyone—you need to be able to understand the subtleties, contexts, and implications.”

The article’s conclusion sums up Zuckerberg’s apparent inability to recognize (or unwillingness to accept) the complexity of the issues at stake in this ongoing debate:

Zuckerberg is convinced that with his accurate map of the social world, he has created an irreplaceable tool for people to stay in touch with, share with — hell, even feel each other. Eventually, he thinks, if he gathers enough users and persuades them to share enough, he’ll have a site that no new rival could ever catch up with. One that — whether it’s through Connect or some other technology — will bring with it the kinds of profits everyone expects from him. But can we be sure that whatever that technology is will not feel like a violation of our trust?

That’s a question Zuckerberg refuses to answer — mostly because he doesn’t quite see things that way. “All that is interesting,” he told me, “but we believe that what we’re doing is a good thing in the world.”

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