Are users ‘dumb fucks’ for trusting data to Facebook?

Facebook Mark Zuckerberg

Embarrassing conversation comes back to haunt embattled Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

BY Tim Edwards LAST UPDATED AT 15:28 ON Fri 14 May 2010

A row over Facebook's casual attitude towards the privacy of its 400 million users is threatening to snowball into a full-blown crisis as high-profile members start closing their accounts.

Facebook seems to deem the situation serious enough to have called an 'all hands' meeting of its staff yesterday to address concerns over data protection.

The situation was inflamed when Silicon Alley Insider posted an old instant messaging conversation between Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and a friend in which the then 19-year-old Harvard student called users of his newly founded website 'dumb fucks'.

During the conversation, Zuckerberg writes: "Yeah so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard, just ask. I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS."

When the friend asks him how he got the information, Zuckerberg replies: "People just submitted it. I don't know why. They 'trust me'. Dumb fucks."

Facebook responded to the publication of the 'dumb fucks' message, saying: "The privacy and security of our users' information is of paramount importance to us.  We're not going to debate claims from anonymous sources or dated allegations that attempt to characterise Mark's and Facebook's views towards privacy."

The IM exchange may well be put down to college-boy bravado, but it chimes with Facebook's generally cavalier attitude to privacy since its inception. Most applications on Facebook require users to allow access to their personal information and that of their friends. It is possible to refuse, but those that do cannot then play games like Farmville or Mafia Wars with their Facebook friends.

Facebook caused particular outrage in December last year when it informed its users it had changed their privacy settings so that private information, including name, profile picture, gender, city, networks and friends could all be seen by strangers. Users had to go into their privacy settings and opt-out if they wanted to change this default setting.

That may sound simple, but the New York Times recently found that Facebook's privacy settings had a combination of 50 different settings and 170 options. Some, like gdgt.com co-founder Peter Rojas - hardly a technophobe - found it simpler to announce they were deactivating their account.

This week the European Commission's data protection working party told Facebook the changes it had made in December were "unacceptable". It said the default setting on social networking groups ought to be for information only to be shared with "self-selected contacts".

"Providers of social networking sites should be aware that it would be a breach of data protection law if they use personal data of other individuals contained in a user profile for commercial purposes if these other individuals have not given their free and unambiguous consent," the working party said in a statement.

Facebook's 'all-hands' meeting is not expected to lead to any changes in its policy - and bloggers claim that far from caving in to privacy advocates, the website is planning to strengthen its presence in Washington in order to lobby for its own interests.

Facebook's controversial 'Instant Personalisation' trial, in which data is shared with third party websites to allow them to offer content of interest to a particular user seems very much the direction the company is heading and it will not abandon it easily.

The reality is Facebook, which is a free service to its users, is sitting on a hoard of data which is incredibly valuable to advertisers. Without that data, it cannot possibly justify the $11bn valuation recently placed on it by Forbes. · 

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