How Facebook Is Redefining Privacy

Nearly 500 million people worldwide live their lives — or versions of them — on Facebook. Is there a limit to how much we'll share? CEO Mark Zuckerberg is betting there isn't

  • Artwork by Yuji Yoshimoto. Photograph by Tom Schierlitz for TIME.

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    As powerful as each piece of Facebook's strategy is, the company isn't forcing its users to drink the Kool-Aid. It's just serving up nice cold glasses, and we're gulping it down. The friends, the connections, the likes — those are all produced by us. Facebook is the ultimate enabler. It's enabling us to give it a cornucopia of information about ourselves. It's a brilliant model, and Facebook, through its skill at weaving the site into the fabric of modern life, has made it work better than anyone else.

    What Voldemort Is to Harry Potter
    Zuckerberg believes that most people want to share more about themselves online. He's almost paternalistic in describing the trend. "The way that people think about privacy is changing a bit," he says. "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."

    Unfortunately, Facebook has a shaky history of granting people that control. In November 2007, when the company tried to make its first foray into the broader Web, it rolled out Facebook Beacon, in which users were automatically signed up for a program that sent a notice to all their friends on Facebook if, say, they made a purchase on a third-party site, like movie tickets on Fandango. Initially, users couldn't opt out of the service altogether — they had to click No Thanks with each individual purchase. And, worse, investigations by security analysts found that even after users hit No Thanks, websites sent purchase details back to Facebook, which the company then deleted. Amid a torrent of complaints, Facebook quickly changed Beacon to be an opt-in system, and by December 2007, the company gave users the option of turning off Beacon completely. Ask Zuckerberg and other executives about the program now, and you'll notice that Beacon has become to Facebook what Voldemort is to Harry Potter's world — the thing that shall not be named.

    Facebook isn't the only company to have made a serious social-networking infraction. In February, Google apologized after the rollout of its Twitteresque Buzz application briefly revealed whom its users e-mailed and chatted with most, a move that alarmed, among others, political dissidents and cheating spouses. But at Facebook, the Beacon debacle didn't stop the company from pushing to make more information public. This winter, the company changed its privacy controls and made certain profile details public, including a user's name, profile photo, status updates and any college or professional networks. During the transition, Zuckerberg's private photos were briefly visible to all, including several pictures in which he looks, shall we say, overserved. He quickly altered his settings.

    In April, the site started giving third-party applications more access to user data. Apps like my beloved Mob Wars used to be allowed to keep your data for only 24 hours; now they can store your info indefinitely — unless you uninstall them. This spring, Facebook also launched something called Instant Personalization, which lets a few sites piggyback onto Facebook user data to create recommendation engines. Once again, as with Beacon, users were automatically enrolled.

    With each set of changes to Facebook's evolving privacy policy, protest groups form and users spread warnings via status messages. In some cases, these outcries have been quite sizable. Zuckerberg points to 2006, when users protested the launch of Facebook's News Feed, a streaming compilation of your friends' status updates. Without much warning, tidbits that you used to have to seek out by going to an individual's profile page were suddenly being broadcast to everyone on that person's list of friends. "We only had 10 million users at the time, and 1 million were complaining," Zuckerberg says. "Now, to think that there wouldn't be a news feed is insane." He's right — protesting the existence of a news feed seems silly in hindsight; Twitter built its entire site around the news-feed concept. So give Zuckerberg some credit for prescience — and perseverance. "That's a big part of what we do, figuring out what the next things are that everyone wants to do and then bringing them along to get them there," he says.

    But corralling 500 million people is a lot harder than corralling 10 million. And some users are ready to pull the plug entirely. Searches for "how to delete Facebook" on Google have nearly doubled in volume since the start of this year.

    The Web's Sketchy Big Brother
    If Facebook wants to keep up the information revolution, then Zuckerberg needs to start talking more and make his case for an era of openness more transparently. Otherwise, Facebook will continue to be cast in the role of the Web's sketchy Big Brother, sucking up our identities into a massive Borg brain to slice, dice and categorize for advertisers.

    But amid all the angst, don't forget that we actually like to share. Yes, Facebook is a moneymaking venture. But after you talk to the company's key people, it's tough to doubt that they truly believe that sharing information is better than keeping secrets, that the world will be a better place if you persuade (or perhaps push) people to be more open. "Even with all the progress that we've made, I think we're much closer to the beginning than the end of the trend," Zuckerberg says.

    Want to stop that trend? The onus, as always, is on you to pull your information. Starve the beast dead. None of Facebook's vision, be it for fostering peace and harmony or for generating ad revenue, is possible without our feeding in our thoughts and preferences. "The way that people decide whether they want to use something or not is whether they like the product or not," Zuckerberg says. Facebook is hoping that we're hooked. As for me? Time to see if the ex-girlfriend has added new photos.

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