TECHNOLOGY The Facebook privacy debate

Staying In
The Facebook privacy debate

Fergus Kelly

In the beginning, Facebook was a tiny little site with a big new Web 2.0 idea – people wanted to share their thoughts and ideas with the people that they knew and a handy website for doing this was spawned in Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard dorm room in 2004.
In the beginning, it was assumed that you didn’t want anyone else to know what was going on in your world, particularly your boss or your mother. In the beginning, the Facebook privacy-setting default was to share with nobody unless you accepted them as a friend or they were in a network that you were a member of. You could change the settings to allow the world to see your status updates and relationship changes, but it was up to you.
Facebook started to grow. Lots of people enjoyed using Facebook and the growth mushroomed.
Then, in 2006, Twitter was born. It was another Web 2.0 site that allowed people to share their ideas and feelings with anyone they chose in 140 characters or less. The thing with Twitter was that most users were happy to share their thoughts with the whole world. They had the option to change their account to completely private, but most didn’t (I was one of those who started very cagily private and then opened my updates to the world).
Twitter started to grow.
Back at Facebook, Zuckerberg saw what had become of his site, and it was good.
In October 2007 Microsoft purchased a tiny 1.6 percent of Facebook for a massive $240 million, implying that the total value of Facebook was around $15 billion, though estimates vary wildly. Unsurprisingly Microsoft is Facebook’s exclusive partner for serving banner advertisements.
By 2009 Facebook had hundreds of millions of users (more than 350 million according to Zuckerberg himself) happily sharing in the ways that suited them best. The site was costing a fair bit of cash to keep running, but plenty of venture capitalists were willing to invest. He looked at Twitter and realised it was growing faster than Facebook and people were sharing differently. He liked its concept. In 2009 Friendfeed, a site very similar to Twitter, was purchased. Facebook could now more closely resemble Twitter.
It seems to me Facebook wanted to make an enormous amount of money from the site by selling search, or at least to open up more of the site to Google, but it had a problem: A lot of the information on the site was private, and they couldn’t let Google search that information and in the online world the more visitors a search engine sends to a site, the more money the site is likely to make.  If the search giants can't find it, they can't send a user that way.
So what did Facebook do? It changed its privacy policy and settings, making it more difficult for users to protect their information from prying eyes.
Zuckerberg’s argument was that in the new Web culture, people want to share their information with everybody. And some do. However, some don’t. A lot of users DON’T want giant global corporations fiddling around in their pokes and groups and stuff, harvesting and profiling and profiting from advertising.
Does this make you question Facebook's motives? I certainly do.
My suspicions were further aroused when Facebook blocked the Web 2.0 Suicide machine, a site that helps people remove themselves and all their data from social networks. Facebook sent a fairly nasty solicitor’s letter threatening legal action against the site.
If Facebook is pro-user and pro-user-choice, why does it want to make it difficult for users to delete all their information? Is it because it could be worth less if it's put up for sale?
The site is only as valuable as its number of users, the amount of time they spend using it and the amount of information they generate.
I wonder.

More information
Facebook’s privacy policy
Internet security experts Sophos’ guide to Facebook privacy
The New York Times guide to Facebook privacy