Facebook CEO Solves Privacy Crisis (in His Own Mind)

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook sought to quell a steadily growing privacy furor Wednesday by rolling out new, "simplified" privacy settings designed to make it easier for users to navigate the site and control how their information is distributed across the network.

But while the new changes will ameliorate some concerns over the site's complexity, Facebook steadfastly refuses to make its default settings private, a key change sought by privacy advocates.

Indeed, the new changes follow the now-familiar pattern after Facebook's increasingly regular privacy flareups: pay lip service to critics, make enough changes to blunt anger, then keep powering ahead with the over-arching vision -- the creation of a massive, monetizable database containing information on every person on the planet.

Simplifying Settings

After weeks of mounting criticism from users and officials over the company's approach to privacy, Facebook called a meeting to address the concerns. "A lot of people are upset with us," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said during a press conference at the company's Palo Alto, Calif., headquarters.

"The No. 1 thing we've heard is that there just needs to be a simpler way to control your information," Zuckerberg said. "We've always offered a lot of controls, but if you find them too hard to use, then you won't feel like you have control. Unless you feel in control, then you won't be comfortable sharing and our service will be less useful for you. We agree we need to improve this."

The main change is the introduction of a master control feature that simplifies the process of selecting what information a user would like to share. The company will also allow users to easily configure their settings so as not to share information with application developers that makes games and programs that run on the site. Your name, profile photograph and gender will remain public.

Default to Sharing

Despite the changes, Zuckerberg and Facebook continue to refuse to set profiles to the highest privacy settings by default. Such a move would give users the most protection at the outset and then let them open up their profiles based on their comfort level. Not gonna happen, Zuckerberg says.

"The site has never worked in a way where you sign up and only the people you are friends with can see your personal information," he says. (I don't know what's scarier: that I never knew that, or that it was true in the first place.) "The point of the site is to allow you to connect with new friends or friends of friends."

That's odd. I always thought the point of the site was to connect to existingfriends and family members.

Zuckerberg: So Misunderstood

The 26-year-old CEO also tried to refute the notion that Facebook treats its users disrespectfully, like so many bits of data from which to make money. Zuckerberg insisted that "it's not about the money" and "it's such a big disconnect" for people to think that. Here's an exchange with Zuckerberg from The New York Times Bits blog:

Question: Are these latest changes all about advertising?

Mr. Zuckerberg: There was a real pivotal moment for me when I was 22 and Yahoo and all these companies, including Viacom, were trying to buy the company, and it was a really crazy time. When we first started the company we started it in a dorm room. We reached a point where me and my friends were 22 years old and we were being offered a billion dollars for the company. It was a really pivotal point for us because it's not about the money. It might seem weird, we're not doing this to make more money. For all the people inside the company that could not be more true. It's such a big disconnect that we're doing this for the money.

Facebook says it will roll out the new settings within the next few weeks.

Zuckerberg Living in Fantasy Land

The new changes drew mixed reactions from privacy and tech experts. "Facebook made some positive changes today, but only because of political pressure from policymakers and privacy advocates on both sides of the Atlantic," says Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

"Mr. Zuckerberg's failure to acknowledge the political realities don't bode well for Facebook's future approach to privacy," Chester adds. "He appears to be living an Alice-in-Digital-Wonderland fantasy, where changes are made on privacy only because Facebook has the goodwill of its users in mind."

Facebook continues to add millions of users every month, and the uproar shows little signs of changing that for now. But Bruce Nussbaum, a professor of innovation and design at Parsons School of Design, wrote this week that "Facebook's imbroglio over privacy reveals what may be a fatal business model."

"I know because my students at Parsons The New School For Design tell me so," wrote Nussbaum, a former assistant managing editor for Business Week. "They live on Facebook and they are furious at it. This was the technology platform they were born into, built their friendships around and expected to be with them as they grew up, got jobs and had families. They just assumed Facebook would evolve as their lives shifted from adolescent to adult and their needs changed."

"Facebook's failure to recognize this culture change deeply threatens its future profits," he added.