My Visceral Reaction to Zuckerberg's Op-Ed

On Sunday, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg broke his silence regarding the most recent spate of privacy problems with his social networking service, and published an op-ed in the Washington Post titled, “From Facebook, answering privacy concerns with new settings.”

When I finally got around to giving it a close reading, my initial reaction was visceral. In just over 500 words, Zuckerberg succeeded in sounding condescending, bragging about things Facebook can’t really brag about, and over-simplifying the core issues at hand. But in the end this doesn’t matter, because I don’t even think Facebook’s 400 million users were the intended audience.

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Like others, I found the overall tone of this piece condescending. Writing about the “challenges” of keeping 400 million users satisfied, the desire to “apply the lessons we’ve learned along the way”, and that he’s “eager to get your feedback” sounds good when the marketing and PR people suggest it, but when you’re (presumably?) trying to apologize and calm angered users, such rhetoric falls short of contrite.

And lines like “We have also heard that some people don’t understand how their personal information is used” make it sound like Facebook isn’t convinced this is really happening, and that they haven’t received any such feedback firsthand. They’ve “heard that some people” don’t understand, as if there’s a rumor wafting through the lunchroom that some mysterious subset of users are having troubles. And here comes Zuckerberg to the rescue. That’s condescending.

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The piece also brags about Facebook’s guiding principles:

– You have control over how your information is shared.

— We do not share your personal information with people or services you don’t want.

— We do not give advertisers access to your personal information.

— We do not and never will sell any of your information to anyone.

— We will always keep Facebook a free service for everyone.

(Note that these 5 principles are different than the 10 principles Facebook already proclaims, although they pretty much map up against each other if you take the time to work on it.)

Zuckerberg repeats that first principle a few other times, noting that “If we give people control over what they share, they will want to share more”, and bragging that “Many people choose to make some of their information visible to everyone so people they know can find them on Facebook. We already offer controls to limit the visibility of that information”

The problem is, this simply isn’t true. Sure, Facebook provides lots of granular privacy controls allowing me to control some of my information. But not all of my information. It was Facebook who decided to make “some of [my] information visible to everyone so people [I] know can find [me] on Facebook”. Facebook did that, not me. And over time, Facebook has routinely removed “controls to limit the visibility of that information”.

Which means that the 2nd principle, “We do not share your personal information with people or services you don’t want”, isn’t true either. By making certain personal information permanently visible, I am forced to share that information with people or services that I don’t want to.

Simply put, I do not have full control over how my information is shared, nor with whom. How these remain core principles of Facebook is beyond me.

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Perhaps what bothered me the most about Zuckerberg’s statement is the fact that he boils down a multitude of reasoned complaints and concerns over a range of Facebook’s platform changes and privacy practices (Instant Personalization, Connections, profile visibility changes, etc) to this singular issue: “Simply put, many of you thought our controls were too complex.” Zuckerberg then goes on to reveal that “We have heard the feedback” and that “we will add privacy controls that are much simpler to use”.

Facebook might have listened, but it did not hear.

Complaints about the complexity of Facebook’s privacy settings have persisted for years. But the noise recently has been about Facebook forcing some information to be permanently public, about Facebook changing the default settings to have more things share with “everyone”, about Facebook automatically enrolling users in “instant personalization”, and about Facebook forcing users to turn their interests into “likes” of pages where they are publicly listed as members.  These are the issues at hand, not merely the complexity of the privacy controls.

In the end, this entire op-ed is just a press release announcing that some simplified privacy settings are forthcoming. That’s what’s so upsetting. All the other issues were ignored and obfuscated in the false rhetoric of how users have “control over how your information is shared.” Amid all the complaints by privacy advocates, possible intervention by the U.S. Senate, and talk about secret privacy meetings within Facebook,  all they could come up with is announcing simpler privacy settings. That’s very disappointing.

(Zuckerberg also notes some kind of control to “give you an easy way to turn off all third-party services”, but there are no details on what this really means. What constitutes a third-party service? Presumably Facebook’s own Instant Personalization “feature” is not a third-party service. I guess we’ll learn about this later today).

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Finally, I can’t get over the fact this missive from Zuckerberg appears as an op-ed in the Washington Post (which, btw, has corporate connections with Facebook). If Facebook really wanted to communicate with its 400 million users about the steps it was taking regarding privacy, is the editorial page of the Post really the best placement? Why not post it on the Facebook blog? Issue a press release? Post it on the Facebook Site Governance page (which boasts 1,508,300 fans). Facebook finally got around to posting a link to the op-ed on its own Facebook page — almost 24 hours after it appeared online at the Post. Heck, buying a full-page add in The Onion would’ve reached more of its core audience than the Sunday Washington Post.

So why the Post? My guess that Facebook is concerned about the real possibility of government intervention into its affairs. Later this week, Facebook will reportedly be briefing members of Congress on what its doing to address various privacy issues. What better way to start the process of lobbying than put an op-ed in the Washington Post.

Which, in the end, means Facebook could care less what I — or any of its 400 million users — thought of the op-ed. It wasn’t put there for users like me. Rather, it seems like Zuckerberg’s piece was strategically placed in the Post to soften the minds of Washington.

And that’s what really pisses me off.

[Image source]

3 Comments

  1. I’d say your response was more urological than visceral, Mike. :)

    I’m considering making Pogo a Facebook-free zone in terms of coverage, as even negative coverage still helps them in some way. In the alternative, I just may devote a widget to news headlines about FB privacy complaints and lawsuits.

    If any other business kept jerking customers around on privacy, customers would likely flee. This is not about a kid named Zuckerberg. It’s about a business that has repeatedly played fast and loose with people’s privacy.

    Reply
  2. Thanks, Dissent. Yeah, I keep going back and forth about whether all this is just the natural consequence of having a 26-year old instant billionaire with unrealistic ideals in charge, or has the entire corporate culture been overtaken by such a problematic approach to privacy…

    Reply
  3. The op-ed was not aimed at Facebook users – you’re right there – but people’s issues with privacy and Facebook are truly silly at the core. The fact that people aren’t required to post true information about themselves in order to initiate their own Facebook page is a testament to this. Users choose to put themselves out there. How much they choose to share is arguably a measure of their IQ. And users who choose to make their information available to everyone, not just “friends,” these are the same people who would dropped their infant off at a wolf den for child care services.

    Privacy is what each and every individual makes it, and services like Facebook should not be held liable for the unfortunate missteps of technologically incompetent user. Maybe people could learn themselves some privacy strategies via some brain exercises at the school?

    You’re putting responsibility for the individual on the wrong shoulders.

    Reply

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