Washington Post Essay: Mark Zuckerberg’s theory of privacy

Washington Post EssayThis week marks the 10th anniversary of Facebook, and to help commemorate this milestone I wrote an essay for The Washington Post that postulates an early framework of Mark Zuckerberg’s theory of privacy, based on a preliminary analysis of the data contained in The Zuckerberg Files archive.

Here are the three principles I discuss:

Information wants to be shared

Updating the 1960s techno-activist slogan “information wants to be free,” Zuckerberg clearly believes that “information wants to be shared,” and that the world will be a better place if we start sharing more information about ourselves.

While comments from Zuckerberg in 2004 and 2005 point to a desire to simply position Facebook as a “really cool college directory,” as the social network grew, so did his vision. In a 2006 blog post apologizing for the controversial rollout of the News Feed feature, Zuckerberg described his motivation this way: “When I made Facebook two years ago my goal was to help people understand what was going on in their world a little better.” A focus on “helping people become more open, sharing more information” started to emerge in Zuckerberg’s rhetoric by 2008. And by 2010, in an opinion piece in The Washington Post, Zuckerberg argued that sharing more information — your photos, your opinions, your birthday, for example — would make the world a better place: “If people share more, the world will become more open and connected. And a world that’s more open and connected is a better world.”

Privacy must be overcome

In his initial public comments about what was then thefacebook, in a Feb. 9, 2004, article in the Harvard Crimson, when Facebook was only five days old, Zuckerberg bragged about the site’s “pretty intensive privacy options.” He also acknowledged that he hoped the privacy options would help to restore his tarnished reputation following student outrage over his earlier Web site, that hot-or-not-inspired Facemash — uproar that was well-depicted in “The Social Network.”

From the start, Zuckerberg knew that privacy would be a significant factor in Facebook’s success. He regularly mentions the site’s “extensive privacy settings” in blog posts and interviews during the first few years of operation. But in many ways, Zuckerberg appears to view privacy as a barrier to the openness that his first principle demands.

This is most evident in a 2008 interview at the Web 2.0 Summit, when he noted, “four years ago, when Facebook was getting started, most people didn’t want to put up any information about themselves on the Internet. . . . So, we got people through this really big hurdle of wanting to put up their full name, or real picture, mobile phone number.” Later in this interview, Zuckerberg predicted that the amount of information people will share online will double each year, and the best strategy for Facebook is to be “pushing that forward.”

Control is the new privacy

When Zuckerberg does talk seriously about privacy, he almost always cites control. Zuckerberg’s apology for the launch of News Feed notes that his original vision for Facebook included the fact that users must “have control over whom they shared [their] information with.” His response to backlash over a change in the site’s terms of service in 2009 was aptly titled, “On Facebook, People Own and Control Their Information.” That statement doesn’t mention the word “privacy,” but instead declares, “Our philosophy that people own their information and control who they share it with has remained constant.” In an interview with Time magazine in 2010 Zuckerberg declares: “What people want isn’t complete privacy. It isn’t that they want secrecy. It’s that they want control over what they share and what they don’t.”

And my conclusion:

The problem with Zuckerberg’s philosophy of privacy, of course, is that over Facebook’s 10-year history, users’ ability to control their information has largely decreased. Default settings lean toward making information public, and new advertising and third-party platforms are increasingly spreading users’ information beyond their direct control.

On Feb. 18, 2004, only two weeks after Facebook’s launch, Zuckerberg noted with surprise that the site had already attracted more than 4,300 users. It was nearly impossible to predict that 10 years later his creation would be used by more than 1 billion across the planet. And it would be foolish to try to guess where Facebook will take us 10 years from now. In an interview set to air Tuesday on the “Today” show, Zuckerberg reflects: “When I look back over the last 10 years, one of the questions that I ask myself is, ‘Why were we the ones to help do this?’ And I think a lot of what it comes down to is, we just cared more.” Perhaps he does care more. I just hope he starts to care more about privacy as well in the next 10 years.

You can read the full essay here.

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