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May 28, 2010

Who cares about Facebook privacy? Not who you think.

by Josh Bernoff

Privacy Go ahead. Name me one company of a significant size whose business suffered due to its treatment of people's private data.

Unless I'm missing something, you can't.

TJX put 45 million credit cards at risk. Do you even remember (it happened in 2007)? Has anybody stopped shopping at TJ Maxx? Can't see the impact.

In the online world, I can't name a single significant company that had a problem. They pay lip service to being concerned about privacy, but in fact, a small number of verbal people whine, but very few leave. If a site is useful, most people (not you, the smart readers of this blog, but average everyday people) vaguely wonder about what happened, but won't give up their site.

So let's take this context and apply it to Facebook. We've had multiple revisions of the privacy policy. We've had CEO Mark Zuckerberg saying that privacy is no longer a social norm. And we've had web searches on how to leave Facebook trending. But still, Zuckerberg says not many people are leaving.

Our own quick poll shows that few are leaving -- and our readers are way more knowledgeable than the general Facebook population.

Read the new Facebook announcement carefully. Here's my analysis of what Zuckerberg is saying: Facebook's engineering process led them into this spot. It's not that Facebook is against your privacy, it's just that they weren't paying close enough attention -- they were concentrating on connections to the open Web, like the "Like" button. But now the outcry is loud enough that they've fixed things with a simpler set of settings.

Not stated, but in the background, is this key fact: the more private your content is, the more Google can't index it. The more public it is, the more Google searches can land on it. Facebook is trying not to be part of the splinternet, but its own members won't let it.

What does this mean?

First, the most important impact of the Facebook flap is not on its own members, but on Congress. Regulation would cause lots more problems than a few members leaving. This is the real battle to watch, and the one that was probably quite persuasive in getting Zuckerberg to change his tune.

Second, if Facebook followed the path it was on, it risked becoming the first significant company to lose business due to not paying close enough attention to privacy. Eventually, some company will create something so compelling that they think privacy doesn't matter. At that point, we'll see which people prefer -- fun/utility, or privacy. And I'm betting fun/utility wins. Because while few will admit it, Zuckerberg might be right -- privacy isn't much of a norm any more.

What does this mean for you as a marketer or Web site? The angel on my right shoulder wants to tell you to behave carefully with people's information. But the devil on my left says you won't lose many customers even if you don't. Just remember, it only takes one violation to trash your reputation -- a lesson Facebook should have learned three years ago with Beacon and Charlene Li. Assuming you don't care about your reputation, your customers may just stick with you anyway.

(Speaking of Charlene: her new book Open Leadership cites Facebook as a very open company. I'm curious about what Charlene thinks about their most recent behavior.)

Photo credit: Rob Pongsajapan via Flickr


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Elmer Boutin

I agree with your comments about Facebook, Josh. I don't believe the average Facebook user really cares too much about all the privacy flap. From what I can see, more people complain about the idea of Facebook charging a membership fee than about privacy settings.

I am happy, though, that there are a vocal few who are keeping an eye on Facebook and others. I think keeping privacy issues in the limelight helps the average user make more informed decisions about with whom they place their trust - if they care to pay attention.


There have always been privacy issues associated with Facebook. Users have to take care of their privacy themselves. Here are 5 simple steps on techchai.com you can take to ensure privacy on facebook. Hope you find them useful.

Herbert Verweij

Follow Jeff Jarvis. He's preparing his new book "Public Parts" about the end of privacy and the benefits of publicness.

Gavin Heaton

It's not that people don't care (or won't act) in relation to Facebook privacy. It's that there is very little broad awareness around the implications. Many millions of Facebook's members will have no idea that these conversations are taking place - and even if there is a sense of awareness, there will be little connection between "what I do" on Facebook and what "they" are talking about. For whether we like it or not, most people still make a clear distinction between their "real" lives and their "online" lives.

Facebook have done a great job making privacy something arcane and obscure - and difficult to manage. To think that they have done so inadvertently is generous. There is real business and real money to be made at the heart of these changes - and the exchange of value leans heavily towards Facebook (even in accounting for fun/utility).

The biggest potential winner in all this are the traditional media/publishers. I'm just surprised they are not leading the outcry.


Good post. Privacy has always been an issue with facebook. However, if people are skeptical of the privacy terms on facebook, why are they using facebook in the first place.
I feel that most facebook users aren't concerned with the privacy as much as others.


I'm not sure this frooferaw is about privacy at all; the majority of sophisticated web users (and those are the ones making a ruckus) understand that web privacy is mostly an illusion.

I think this is all about Facebook's violation of the trust of it's users by changing their policies in ways many considered underhanded. Trust online, as many digital marketers know, is very difficult to acquire. Facebook had it and squandered it in ways that were really foolish.

Now if they choose to charge, I for one will opt out; not because of privacy concerns or even the fee, but because of concerns over how trustworthy they are.

How to password protect iPhone

Great post man. @Nicole according to our survey in 2009 people don't mostly read the terms and conditions.


Most common lie isn't "of course that doesn't make you look fat" it's: "I've read and agree to the terms and conditions"


This is an interesting article because it is such a hot topic inside and outside social media. It is hard to say how many people actually care about facebook's privacy laws. Facebook user activity saw it's first decrease in May mainly over privacy concerns. This should be an area of concern for them. We discuss some key issues that facebook could work out in order to become more successful: http://bit.ly/b6bJEO

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