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Facebook’s ‘Ask Our CPO’ is just more privacy PR

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Over the weekend, Facebook announced ‘Ask Our CPO,” a new monthly feature from the company in which Facebook Chief Privacy Officer Erin Egan answers users’ questions about privacy on the social network. The feature even comes with its own ‘Ask Erin’ Facebook app, through which users can submit their questions. As TechCrunch notes, this is the first effort from the social network to provide a way for users to engage with the company over privacy matters since the death of Facebook’s policy voting process in December.

“To help continue this conversation, we created this Ask Our CPO feature, which will enable you to send us your questions, concerns, and feedback about privacy — and give us the opportunity to share with you how we think about privacy,” writes Egan. “We hope this feature will serve as a regular forum where we can have a direct conversation about privacy.”

I hope so, too. Unfortunately, the introductory ‘Ask Our CPO’ reads like one giant press release, riddled with meaningless corporate lingo that makes me question the purpose and sincerity of the whole endeavor.

Facebook Ask our CPO

For example, when Egan explains how “Facebook think[s] about privacy when building its products,” she says things like “We think about and work on privacy around the clock here at Facebook.” She notes Facebook’s “comprehensive privacy program” and “a systematic approach to privacy.” In later sections, she talks about how “great” Facebook’s “granular controls” are, and how Facebook understands “that different people have different privacy preferences.”

In the final section, under “Does Facebook sell my private information to advertisers?,” Egan gives the answer we’ve heard many times in the past, but which has little meaning: “No.”

“Facebook, like many companies on the Web, is able to keep our service free by including advertisements. But we don’t make money by selling your private information to third parties,” Egan writes. “Instead, we support our service by showing you relevant ads that help you discover products and services that are interesting to you. We use the things you do and share on Facebook, including demographics, likes, and interests to show ads that are more relevant to you.”

Translation: Facebook doesn’t sell your data to advertisers; it uses your data to sell ads. As a Facebook user, I can’t say this makes me feel any better.

Nor does Egan’s admission that the entire “Ask Our CPO” project is purely self-serving. “At Facebook, we work hard to build and maintain your trust,” she writes at the start of the introduction. “We understand that you’ll want to share on Facebook only if you trust us to protect the privacy and security of your information.”

Which leads us to the only truly honest thing Egan can say about Facebook: The social network has nothing to do with privacy, and everything to do with shedding your private life through every update, photo, or video you share.

Yes, Facebook has loads of privacy controls. And I’m sure it’s true that the company works around the clock to make those privacy controls better. But there is only one question Egan really needs to answer: “Can anyone reasonably expect the things they post on Facebook to remain private?” Anything short of a solid “no” would be dishonest. Privacy is not the point.

It will be interesting to see what comes of the “Ask Our CPO” feature. But unless the company can let something more than pure PR-speak to make it through the gate, I doubt it will do much to gain users’ trust.

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