Facebook CEO Zuckerberg causes stir over privacy

One privacy advocate contends Facebook is pushing users to expect less privacy

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's contention last week that privacy is becoming less important to online users caused a stir across the Internet and among privacy advocates.

Zuckerberg told an audience at the 2009 Crunchies Awards ceremonies in San Francisco on Friday that social norms are changing and people don't expect or want nearly as much privacy as they have in the past.

"When we got started, the question people asked was, 'Why would I want to put any information on the Internet?'," he said during the presentation of awards to top online startups and makers of innovative technology.

[ See video clip of Zuckerberg talking privacy here .]

"In the last five or six years, blogging has taken off in a huge way. People have really gotten comfortable sharing more information and different kinds but more openly and with more people," Zuckerberg added.

Zuckerberg went on to say that Facebook has been changing its privacy structure to conform to users' changing preferences. "We view it as our role in the system to constantly be innovating and updating our system to reflect what the current social norms are," he said.

The blogosphere and industry pundits today were lit up with stories about criticizing Zuckerberg's statements on online privacy.

Facebook contends Zuckerberg's statements were blown out of proportion and were "mischaracterized" and "sensationalized" by some pundits.

"He observed that social norms on the Internet are changing and that Facebook is responding, including by offering people more and better tools to decide what to share and with whom," wrote a Facebook spokesperson in an e-mail to Computerworld. "Clearly, people are sharing much more information far more broadly than ever before through blogs, comments on stories, Facebook, Twitter and many other services. A core part of Facebook's mission has always been to deliver the tools that empower people with control over their information."

Kevin Bankston, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Computerworld that he was surprised and concerned about Zuckerberg's statements, especially since Facebook itself has been helping to erode the sense of privacy of its users.

"I think it's rather disingenuous [to talk about how social norms are changing] rather than take responsibility for how Facebook's actions shape social norms," said Bankston. "Facebook is pushing those social norms in a direction more profitable for Facebook ."

Bankston contends that Facebook's latest privacy policy in fact opens user information to more prying eyes. The social network, which has more than 350 million users, has removed controls on information deemed public, like user names, their city of residence, profile pictures, fan pages and friend lists, according to Bankston.

Dan Olds, an analyst with the Gabriel Consulting Group, said Zuckerberg's comments were a bit startling but users should be savvy enough to know how to better protect themselves.

"I think Zuckerberg's comments show him to be a bit tone deaf," said Olds. "The majority of Facebook users are more concerned about privacy than he seems to think. This will become clear to him in the coming days and weeks as he sees the reaction to his remarks. However, the success of Facebook can't be argued with, and in that context, his comments are a pretty accurate description of current reality."

Olds noted that Facebook may be pushing the whole "public life" trend by making it easy for anyone to see anything someone posts on the site, but users aren't being tricked into posting intimate details about their lives.

"People are embracing it," he added. "They can just as easily choose to not participate. Zuckerberg's argument that privacy isn't that big a deal anymore seems to ring true, as witnessed by the millions of people posting what might once have been considered private details of their lives on the Internet.

"While some people, like me, aren't that comfortable with all the details of their boring lives being on the Web, others seem to be," Olds added. "We already hear stories of people who suffer negative consequences from these disclosures, but I don't know if this particular genie can be put back in the bottle."

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