It’s no secret: Facebook’s allure is its privacy

It’s no secret: Facebook’s allure is its privacy


By Reuters,  Sun Jul 15 16:37:56 PDT 2007

The secret of Facebook’s success, and its future viability, hinges
on how the social network site protects privacy, taming the
anything-goes intrusiveness of what might as well be known as the World
Wild Web.

Chris Kelly, Facebook’s chief privacy officer, said users want
greater control over who sees their personal information, rather than
expecting total privacy, or anonymity, the concept underlying much of
the legal thinking on privacy for more than a century.

"Privacy is beginning to transform from the classic ‘right to
be left alone’ to this notion that ‘I want control over my
information,’" Kelly said in an interview on the sidelines of a Fortune magazine technology conference held here last week.

Started in 2004 by then-undergraduate Mark Zuckerberg as a social site
for fellow Harvard University students, Facebook has been opened up
over the last year to users of all ages, who have a degree of control
over who sees what personal details.

These privacy controls paradoxically encourage users to reveal
more about themselves within their approved circle of friends than they
would do on the wide-open Web. As a result, many post mobile phone
numbers, reveal political loyalties or even show changes in their
dating status for friends to see.

Facebook has seen membership spike 25 percent to more than 30
million since May, when it turned the site into a big tent for
outsiders to build software inside it. This lets users engage in online
activities while limiting exposure to security pitfalls.

"We have tried to take a very control-based approach for our
users, so Facebook information doesn’t leak out on the Web in general,"
Kelly said. "Privacy, as anonymity, is declining, but privacy, as
control, is on the rise."

As a company, Facebook’s livelihood hinges on how it balances the trade-offs between privacy and openness.

The free, advertising-supported site runs a limited number of
conventional Web banner ads. But it also is looking at how to offer ads
that match people’s expressed interests without frightening users that
their data will be abused by marketers.

"In a trusted environment you share more," Kelly said of the
business logic of insuring privacy. "There is an opportunity to target
advertising, as long as you keep that trusted environment."

Facebook board member and financial backer Jim Breyer, a
partner at venture capital firm Accel Partners, said the company would
do well over $100 million in revenue in 2007, be profitable, and have
significant positive cash flow this year.

Breyer also sought to knock down rumors the company may be for
sale–the latest speculation last week was that Microsoft should
consider paying $6 billion for Facebook.

"We continue to focus on building the best stand-alone company
we can be and, simply said, are not for sale," Breyer said via e-mail
on Saturday.

Facebook is no privacy nirvana, nor does it mean to be.

Indeed, its core function is to enable a kind of virtual
voyeurism that makes it easy for members to post comments, photos and
videos about their own lives while keeping tabs on what their network
of online friends are up to.

It does this by offering an automated news feed of what friends
are doing on their own Facebook profile pages–a kind of gossip column
among friends.

Highlighting the tension over privacy at the core of the site,
when the feature was introduced last September, members temporarily
revolted until the company introduced greater controls over what
information their friends could see.

In another example of how privacy protections play out on Facebook,
photos are often shared among users, but individuals retain the right
to delete their names from photo labels, providing a degree of
insulation from personal embarrassment.

While large and growing, Facebook functions like an endless
series of online private clubs. The average Facebook user has access to
only one in 200 of its members, Kelly said.

Among diehard Facebook users, many of whom have hundreds of
connections to friends, a more subtle privacy complaint arises. As it
now stands, Facebook software treats friends pretty much equally, a
byproduct of its college-campus roots.

But as more users add different types of contacts–bosses,
family members, colleagues, business acquaintances–demand grows for
more refined privacy controls to distinguish between various types of
real-world relationships.

Kelly said the company was working to address the issue. "Stay tuned: We are all about user control," he said.

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