Lots of posts the past few days about the current Facebook privacy issues. Mark Zuckerberg is under attack. Not just for the latest Facebook update, but also personally for an alleged chat session that suggests he isn’t very respectful towards his customers (A new Gordon Brown affair shall we say).
Two things strike me. One is that when Facebook gets heavy fire the captain leaves communication to a PR department. Facebook has become more corporate than they would like to think. It’s the stupidest thing you could do right now. The attacks are at the heart of the company and its CEO. Instead of hiding behind a shield of PR Mark Zuckerberg should become as transparent on his privacy views as he forces Facebook users to be with their personal data. Quid pro quo.
The other thing that draws attention is the difficult position Facebook placed itself into wrt privacy. When it comes to privacy you cannot tamper with it. The concept of privacy doesn’t easily allow for a middle ground. Either you agree to the notion of privacy and deal with it, or you decide that it isn’t important and be open about it. Facebook has created their own privacy trap by publicly choosing the side of the user, while everyone could see that internally this would conflict with their revenue need.
I’ve written a lot of posts about this Facebook dilemma in the past. The core thought behind most of them is that Facebook has fallen into its own advertisement trap. You can’t protect privacy on behalf of your user base, if your core business model is advertisement. These goals are obviously (near-)mutually exclusive. This trap is deepened by strategic choices and the chosen PR around those choices. The first PR disaster was Beacon, but many followed after that.
What is really ironic about all of this, is that they could have easily avoided this trap. If only Mark Zuckerberg would have chosen the path, they are now so desperately trying to claim, from the start. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a free social network service that brings consumers and advertisers together! I’ve agitated against Facebook, not because they have chosen an advertisement based business model. My objection is aimed at their dishonesty (it is more than just a lack of transparency) when it comes to the consequences of their business model and privacy. You cannot say that you are protecting the privacy of your users if a) your business model says otherwise, and b) you do not provide your users with a privacy setting that protects them from Facebook itself. The rest (e.g. beacon, confusing privacy settings, opt out instead of opt in) is just collateral damage.
It is this dishonesty that is now giving them a hard time. And there is only one way to get out of this trap. Mark Zuckerberg needs to make a strategic choice. Is Facebook for its users, or is it for its advertisers. Either one is fine. Once that choice has been made, Mark needs to be transparent about that choice towards his users. In the first scenario, he would let the user be in full control of his privacy, including a big and easy to find switch that tells Facebook that they cannot touch this user and his interactions. He would accept that not all users would be willing to share with Facebook or its advertisers.
In the second scenario, he continues on the path Facebook is on now, but his attitude towards communication needs to change radically. Instead of the ‘we protect our users privacy’, communication needs to address privacy transparently and honestly. He needs to explain his business model and the goal of that model (bring user and advertiser together). He will likely use some users over it, but he will keep enough users on board to be freed from the trap he is in. And he will never see that trap again, as it will be fully transparent that signing up for Facebook means you share with Facebook and advertisers (the amount of sharing is still controlled by the user, it just won’t be nil).
Robert Scoble actually has a very cute suggestion that handles scenario 1 and 2 together. Personally I think that it wouldn’t be the strategic way to go. Do one thing, and do it right. Having both scenario’s may provide more flexibility, but it will be error prone and the privacy discussion/trap will not disappear.
With privacy there simply is no middle ground, and Mark Zuckerberg needs to make a strategic choice and decide whose side he will be on. Otherwise this will haunt him forever.