Dear Mr. Zuckerberg,
You are the CEO of one of the most fastest growing and remarkable companies in the world. You’ve created a place where 350 million people get together online and have a great time. A place where 350 million people can share their status, their ups and downs, their thoughts and feelings with their friends. You’ve managed to conquer the US and then translate your service into more that 50 other languages with help of your community. You’ve become the biggest online photo storage platform with a staggering 2.5 billion photos uploaded each month. You are the first company that successfully transformed a service into a platform with now hundreds of thousands of 3rd party development companies building applications and creating revenues. You’ve enabled a large part of the world to have access and connect online, an achievement I admire and you should be proud of.
Your company went through a bumpy road to success. Your success has also created the biggest challenge of all. Keeping 350M people and their date connected online costs money, a lot of money. Yet you have chosen to give everyone free access to the service. It’s a brave, yet very challenging strategy. I can appreciate this. I am the CEO of an infinitesimal company compared to yours and we struggle with this challenge too, every day. The costs are for real, and you cannot continue to live on investments. Your company somehow needs to generate revenues. lots of it. And your brave decision comes at a cost for us, the users. You have chosen the advertisement business model to cover your costs and generate revenues.
There is nothing wrong with an advertisement based business model, just look at Google. They make huge profits with serving advertisement. They have found a way in which the advertisement itself provides value to both the user and the advertiser. It’s a winning strategy for everyone.
With your service this is much more difficult. You started out as a closed network for college students, with a Terms of Service that probably didn’t address the need to break down privacy at the cost of revenues. But as you grew bigger, your cost/revenue problem became bigger. And with power comes a fertile ground for evil. You’ve chosen a flawed advertisement based business model. Flawed because you are running into the problem that the advertisement itself provides no value to your users while they are interacting with friends. Instead of providing your users value, you sell their data and serve them billboards that they do not care about. Instead of protecting your user’s right to privacy, you are constantly removing their ability to control it. You have your share of privacy related issues with project Beacon, spamming 3rd party developers, malicious gaming companies, and cyber attacks, You’ve updated your TOS several times now, always with the need of the user in mind you say. Yet, every time you’ve altered your TOS, you’ve had to draw back crucial privacy-related terms because your users and the media created an uproar over it. And in your latest bold move, you’ve decided to add the ability to share everything in public to your service, and introduce that feature with confusing settings (defaulting to public sharing) for 350M users. And you have even said that if you would have created Facebook today, you would have used the public settings all along. But you haven’t, have you? You’ve created Facebook with a different purpose, and are now trying to justify your need to generate revenues with false reasoning.
It seems that the relation between you and your user base is not in balance anymore. Facebook has gained too much power, at the expense of its users. Power corrupts, and you now have too much of it. You may say that you act upon behalf of your users, but your actions are saying something different. I’ve written Eric Schmidt a very similar letter recently, in which I asked him to restore the balance of power between his company and his users. He too, was crossing a line when it comes to privacy, and just like yourself, he has the power and means to do something about it.
You see Mr Zuckerberg. Privacy isn’t just about hiding personal information. Privacy isn’t dead. Privacy is about choice. It’s about freedom. It is about the user that can draw his personal line somewhere. It’s about restoring the balance between the user and the service provider. This freedom can never be dead, it is a vital human right that characterizes our society. You have a huge infrastructure in place that could restore this balance. But it would need yet another bold decision from you.
Instead of forcing people into your business model, you would need to put the user in control. Instead of setting sharing options to public by default, you would need to set them to private. This would give the user more control over this relationship with your company. By default the user would be assured that the things he shares are only visible to those he wants to share it with. and if that user wants the benefits that come with public sharing, he can make a conscious decision to set the switch to public. Instead of exploitation and customer lock-in you would create a partnership based upon willingness, and customer freedom. A huge difference. You might even consider alternative business models that monetize user value instead of user harassment. You may (need to) lose users over this decision.You may not even be able to become profitable in the very near future. But you would do the right thing for the user, and the user will value that. You have a passionate community of 350M users, and I’ve always learned that when you have a passionate community you can create huge value together. And you can monetize that value and passion in a positive way.
How about it Mr Zuckerberg? Would you be willing to take that step? If you need help, give me a call, because I would like to help too.
Alexander van Elsas