Are We Entitled to Unchecked Privacy On The Web?

Last week’s headlines were dominated by stories of Facebook privacy issues.

mark zuckerberg and pete cashmoreReasonable bloggers and headline grabbers like Huffington Post ran stories about how to delete your Facebook profile and there’s even a Quit Facebook Day movement afoot. (Mind you the Huff Post piece ran next to an article about Lindsay Lohan throwing a drink on someone.)

All of this was stirred up by some significant changes to Facebook’s privacy policies, recent tech slip ups, and a practice of making shared info the default setting. And of course the various videos of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg talking about privacy can be chilling too.

But, here’s the point that few seem to be grasping. The Internet is an inherently unprivate, unsafe, place. Why do people believe that a company that builds a service to make a profit and then gives it away for free is going to have our best interest at heart. Why in the world are people surprised that Facebook is making these moves. And most importantly why do we feel entitled to protection and privacy when the real issue is that people are sharing things they shouldn’t share in this or perhaps any environment.

No company deserves that kind of trust. Facebook, Google, Microsoft and even the cherished Apple care about making a profit. While I don’t think any of these organizations are evil by nature, we need to see them for what they are – utilities to be used in reasonable ways to grow our business. (Although I do think Zuckerberg may have slept through his Business Ethics class at Harvard)

Facebook is a good tool for business. I think they could certainly handle the way they communicate much better, but don’t let the immature behavior and recent stir up about privacy issues convince you to sit it out as one valuable way to reach and engage customers and prospects. But, do see it for it is – a utility. And keep an eye on your privacy settings.

Image credit: Mark Zuckerberg and Pete Cashmore magerleagues

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  • Susan Martin

    I agree John, I think it’s more important to monitor your own communications on facebook, but that’s when we’re talking about adult users.

    However, teenagers make up a huge percentage of facebook users. As the mom of one, it really does concern me. Facebook has become such an integral part of the way teens communicate, and despite parental objections and warnings, they still post things on their fb pages that are a little too personal, which if fell into the wrong hands could certainly be used to harm them.

    Perhaps it’s a little naive to expect facebook to take on this responsibility, but if it is, what’s the answer? Do we want to have the government come in and start regulating social networking sites?

  • Christopher Caton

    The reason people are upset is because Facebook started with a high degree of privacy. Those early-adapters who invested time and enthusiasm to grow a remarkable product did so with the expectation of user privacy. That this expectation has been shattered leaves the user with feelings of betrayal; we've suffered from a collective bait-and-switch.

    Ignoring the unethical and downright dirty strategy employed by Facebook, there is also the concern that content posted with high privacy standards was not intended to be distributed under these lower privacy safeguards. Facebook has changed the terms and conditions without giving users the opportunity to modify their exposure beforehand. Now *that* is something worth getting upset about. If I buy products from a local retailer, and only AFTER I make my purchase do they start posting lists of my purchases with my name up on their store walls, that would be considered a revolting violation of my privacy, even though I shouldn't expect this retailer to have my “best interests” at heart.

    Why do you make an exception for Facebook?

  • ducttape

    Christopher – I'm not defending Facebook, I'm suggesting we're silly to expect a high level of privacy in this or any online environment – let me also remind you that Facebook hasn't sold you anything. Yes they've changed the terms and done it poorly, they don't deserve the kind of trust people have given them, but no one should feel entitled to it either.

    The solution is simple – don't post anything online you don't want your mother to read.

  • Joy Johnson

    There's no such thing as privacy. If someone wants to know something about you, it's all there to find. We all live in bubbles, the exteriors of which are composed of the eyeballs of our fellow man. Having a personal life, is pretty much like having a politically incorrect thought. You either have to have the guts to put it out there, or swallow it. There is no demilitarized zone between.

  • Andy @ FirstFound

    I think the main issue is Zuckerberg sneaking all this stuff in. Flipping the switch from private to “Hey y'all! Look at this guy! He likes reading Vonnegut! SELL HIM SOMETHING!” didn't win him many fans, even if some of the criticisms have been a bit shrill.

  • Perry Wilson

    I think of the web – and social media in particular – the same way as I think about walking down a public street. I maybe alone in this :) but I don't expect privacy when I'm on a public street, why would I expect it when I voluntarily participate in social media.

    When it comes to people posting pictures about me, well, I don't let too many people take pictures of me and I trust my friends.

    I'm sure much of the furor about Facebook is from uninformed people. But, if you don't want to be out in the social media world, you can choose not to be there.

  • chelle parmele

    Nicely put, John. A lot of my own thoughts about the whole situation are in your article. It's nice to see them articulated like that. I don't worry so much about my own page – I'm there for more than just personal reasons. But I do worry about people like my mom who are just finding their footing in the online world and maybe don't have as great of an understanding about the consequences.

    I just finished reading Jeremiah Owyang's article on Facebook and its impact on business. I actually find the points he brings up to be of more concern than the privacy issues so many people are concentrating on.

    In any case, it's something I think I need to read more about. Thanks for the great article!

  • Paul Chaney

    That is exactly what I say to people. I try and stay true to that too, especially now that my mother, herself, on Facebook. A little common sense goes a long way in this whole debate.

  • Carrie

    I generally don't post anything I wouldn't want my mother or bosses to see on facebook (had that policy even before they all friended me 😉 ). What I'm concerned about is I have other details that are generally hidden such as my hometown, current city, phone number, and email address. For a number of reasons, I just don't want these details exposed to the web.

    I think a certain amount of privacy should be expected from websites. There are a lot of sensitive transactions that occur online, ex: banking, making purchases, restoring lost IDs and people should feel secure with the information they provide to websites. If Amazon is recommending recent purchases to facebook friends and a “How to Get a Quick Divorce” book reco pops up, it could be slightly problematic for someone. May not happen like that, but just concerned about the slippery slope.

  • Gabriel Paul

    Sorry, I don't buy your logic. That's like saying “expect all businesses to cheat you”.

    Well, that is one way of doing things, but I don't think most people are talking about having life changing secrets spilled on Facebook.

    It's about segmentation, not just the information that is being shared, but with whom it's being shared: what I share at the office (none of which I'd mind my mother knowing), is not what I share with my friends, which might differ slightly with what I share with my family.

    We have a reason to expect any contract in business or in our personal lives to be honored, whether dealing with an employer, a customer, a vendor or a business partner. When those contracts are broken, there's a problem.

    Facebook started off with one user contract, and then switched midstream. We were told it was invitation only: that only those invited or who accepted an invitation were given access to my account.

    Should be expect it? Possibly. I guess my online bank might start sharing my social security number, or my email provider might start revealing the content of my messages.

    That assumption makes all agreements worthless and unworkable.

  • Laura

    John. People. Take your Business Goggles off for just a minute. The issue here is not how Facebook can benefit your business. It's about what it started out to be and what it has become.

    Suggesting that Facebook is a good tool for business is the HI-JACKED version of the tool. It did not start out that way, but has been co-opted by businesses because they see PROSPECTS. Thus, FB sees advertisers. But for businesses to justify the hi-jacking with a moral stance (such as the kind that kicked off Prohibition) that “people are sharing things they shouldn’t”, and “we're silly to expect a high level of privacy” – I find sickening.

    “Why do people believe that a company that builds a service to make a profit and then gives it away for free is going to have our best interest at heart.” Has it occurred to you that if Facebook was charging BUSINESSES for their pages, they would not be giving it away for free?

    “What? Make Duct Tape Marketing *PAY* to advertise? That's outrageous!”

    As private citizens, our best interests are based on the Privacy Policy we were given when we signed on to FB, which explicitly did NOT include the sharing of personal information with other entities – business or private. Facebook has changed (I won't say “evolved”), and the majority that makes up its core competency has been hung out to dry. It didn't take me too long in business to learn that pissing off my bread and butter was not the way to earn gravy. Facebook is liable to learn a hard lesson here.

    An analogy: FB is the equivalent of a telephone party line in writing. Keep that in mind, please, as you are using this tool to promote your business FOR FREE. The people on the line did not invite advertising eves-droppers. These eves-droppers suggest that they're doing us a “favor” by taking our PRIVATE information and guiding us based on our preferences when we go out shopping. Not so. Eves-droppers can expect to get hung up on when they attempt to foist this kind of agenda. Say goodbye to Facebook. This “prospect” along with many others won't go to Facebook partner sites, either.

    If you're a business, PAY for advertising. If you want information, be up front and ask for it. People are up in arms because Facebook is allowing businesses to sneak into my living room and steal it – and then tell me it's my fault for what I say behind closed doors. Didn't your mother ever tell you that eves-dropping is not polite?

    Don't forget to click “like” if you agree.

  • paulkonrardy

    Good points, John. As you mentioned in your guest post on ChrisBrogan last week (…), you addressed referability and trust is a huge component of that: “trust is the most important reason a recommendation is made and, conversely, lack of trust the single greatest reason referrals don’t happen.”

    I would agree that FB can be helpful for business – mostly because it's where a lot of potential and/or current customers live…for now. However, I don't feel I can trust Facebook as much as I once -perhaps naively – did. This trust piece will dictate if businesses should continue to invest in making FB part of their marketing decisions. For now, I can tell you we are not pushing Facebook for our clients like we once did.

    Separately, since Facebook is a utility (that was a great call, BTW), do you think it will be regulated someday?

    Paul Konrardy

  • ducttape

    Probably will be regulated, but only after several more disasters with data and privacy.

  • ducttape

    Thanks for the passionate and long comment :) Problem is I'm having trouble arguing with you because I don't disagree – my point is that, as one commenter noted, we aren't customers of Facebook we're part of the product a feature if you will.

    That's the part people have to wrap their head around.

    Facebook sells advertising for which people do already pay. They are not going to sell the data too – kind of like when you subscribe to Fishing Times and get lots of fishing related offers.

    My real point is that you should not completely trust anything online, but look at it's value today and choose to or not to use the utility.

  • ducttape

    I'm not defending just pointing out that it's a choice. I had someone tell me they were moving their entire web presence to Facebook and dropping their own web site – to which I could only shudder.

  • AccuConference

    Great points, John. You're absolutely right that a company that was created to “make money” would not have our best interest at heart. However, what is surprising is the manner in which it was done. It just all seems very shady and that's my problem with it. If Facebook would like to make money, okay, that's fine — but at least be more upfront with what you're doing with my personal information.

    Or, we could all just quit Facebook, but none of us are really going to do that. We're tied into it and addicted to it now, and for some people it's the only way to communicate with some friends and family. So I guess we're right where they want us.

  • Laura

    My point is more bottom line than that:

    My company would be willing to pay a monthly fee for its FB Page, if it would keep FB from giving away peoples' private information to its partner sites.

  • Nathan Hangen

    I've said this elsewhere, but I'll say it again. I don't think people hate the privacy issue as much as they hate Zuck's cowboy attitude about it.

  • Blog World Expo

    Good post John. You nailed it in pointing out Facebook is a for profit entity. Everything they do is done to make money in the end.

    I agree we all should know that the internet is a dangerous un-private place, however those of us that do understand that, need to realize most of the world does not. In fact most of the world (like our moms) have no idea how the internet works let alone how tools like Facebook and Twitter work.

    I believe we (those of us in the know) have an obligation to educate those that don't and shout out things like these privacy issues with Facebook as often as necessary. Facebook certainly never will.

    In fact I would go so far as to say Facebook is banking on their ignorance.

    My own blog post coming soon.

  • Ben Merrion

    The issue here really isn't whether they are making a profit or not. It is whether what they are doing is ethical. All of us have a right to opt-in to having Facebook share our stuff. You can make a profit and be ethical and gain your customer's trust. In fact, that's the best way to make a profit and guarantee it. Facebook is not doing that. When Diaspora hits, there will be a mass exodus from Facebook. Bet on that.

  • AlexSchleber

    I like a lot of your posts, but this is pretty weak.

    How about your bank and its online baking app? Do you use that? (or are you a Luddite :)

    Those are free, no? So I guess there are things that can be kept rather safe and private on the Internet. It's all up to the terms of service, isn't it?

    And as far as Facebook being free, that isn't exactly true either. Users are paying the service with their attention/time.
    The only truly scarce resource in this Information Economy.

    And FB apparently has no respect for that fact, which will likely come back to bite them before long.

  • Rich Media Marketing

    Facebook is the best social website and it is a very good tool for business as communication is better and i think facebook should review its security issues so that people feel safe uisng the website

  • Roman Sahakov

    I neither understand why the people do it o.O

  • Roman Sahakov

    very good post, thx

  • ducttape

    And then when Diaspora decides the users are the product, we'll be right back here having this same conversation won't we? I agree it's not about profit – I'm saying we have no reason to trust these organizations will always do what they started to do.

  • ducttape

    The comparison to a bank is ridiculous. Banks are highly regulated institutions that provide the tool as a service to a paying customer. Users aren't even customers of Facebook, they are a part of the product and so expect to be treated that way. Don't miss the point of the post I think this will hurt FB in the eyes of the original user base, but what I'm really saying is nobody should be surprised by this behavior from FB.

  • AlexSchleber

    This was merely to make a point that secure online applications exist. Supplant online shopping, dating, etc. to your liking. I myself have sent out that same quote: “…FB users aren't FB's customers.” However, from the point of view of users, who are using a Social/Identity SERVICE (that's still what we call it, and that is why they have TOS – Terms of Service), they are customers as well.

    If Facebook is not tending to its users as customers, that is a huge mistake, because without them, the other customers (the ad buyers) wouldn't exist. So the idea that we shouldn't be surprised about Facebook's moves only holds if we think of FB as rash and short-sighted…

    And as you already pointed out in another reply, Facebook may well find themselves regulated. And given the fact that they've stylized themselves the keepers of people's online identity, it may happen sooner than we think. The EU is already getting on the case, and they take these privacy issues a lot more seriously over there.

  • Ken Harper II

    Hi John!

    Just spotted this post, and have to agree with you – don't expect privacy for any information you post on the Internet, and Facebook is a good, recent example.
    Everyone should carefully consider how widely they would want to share what they post on the Internet.
    Just a matter of time before the next privacy / data leak disaster.
    Take care.

  • ducttape

    Even sites you trust today can change much as Facebook has changed for some of it's earlier users.