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Zuckerberg: Online Privacy Is Not A “Social Norm”

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Speaking at an awards show in San Francisco over the weekend, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg described increased sharing of personal information with wider groups of people and businesses as a new “social norm,” pointing out the vast number of people on the Internet who post information about their lives to blogs and who have become “comfortable” sharing information about themselves—and their activities, habits, and purchases—with more and more people and businesses. And in doing so, Zuckerberg describes Facebook’s recent privacy overhauls—which default to sharing substantial information about users with the whole world—as keeping with with current social norms. In other words, in Zuckerberg’s world view, online privacy is not something Internet users expect.

Zuckerberg’s comments come as his company has recently revamped its default privacy settings for Facebook accounts so that, by default, users photos, profile, and status updates are accessible to the entire Internet—including search engines like Google, which have the capability to store the information in cache for an indefinite period of time, effectively making it “immortal” on the Internet. If users do not wish to share that data with the entire world, they have to specifically alter their privacy settings to block that information from being shared.

The Electronic Privacy Freedom Foundation has filed a complaint (PDF) with the Federal Trade Commission alleging that Facebook’s privacy practices endanger its users in an age of online predators, surveillance, and identity theft, and that the company is engaging in “unfair and deceptive practices.” Groups signing on with EPIC’s complaint include the American Library Association, the Center for Digital Democracy, and the Consumer Federation of America.

Zuckerberg may be correct in asserting there is a growing generation of Internet users who don’t care whether information they post to Facebook or other social networking services is widely shared with the world, businesses, and other Internet users; certainly, that sort of real “lifestyle” data is invaluable to advertisers who seek to target Internet users based on their interests and habits. However, lack of online privacy—and users’ cognizance of it—may also generate a backlash, wherein the information users choose to share with the world is exaggerated, half-true, or outright fictional as users create online personas to protect the privacy of their real lives. In that way, lack of online privacy actually works counter to the business interests of social networking sites, because the information they’re providing to their users—and advertisers—may not be a close match with reality.