Open Letter to Facebook on Privacy

Facebook appears to be working diligently at establishing itself as the site that people love to hate. Don't get me wrong, passionate views are a mark of success--just look at Microsoft, Apple, and Google. Still, the trick is to foster that passion (and generate revenue) without inviting undue regulatory scrutiny or legal backlash.

I have some advice for Facebook--albeit completely unsolicited. The problem isn't that my personal information and data is shared too freely across the entire Internet to total strangers that have no connection whatsoever with my social network. Well...it is, but the real problem is that you are the one sharing it.

Learn from Google's mistakes with the launch of Google Buzz. Google rolled out Buzz and opened the privacy floodgates without warning. Suddenly, relationships, connections, and message threads were all visible without the consent of the user.

When dealing with privacy issues and sensitive information, the philosophy of "it's better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission" does not apply. The consensus among the privacy commissioners from ten different countries is that "Google should consider the privacy implications of new launches, or when expanding or changing existing services," and the same applies to Facebook.

Zuckerberg was half right when he declared that users no longer care about privacy. Zuckerberg told TechCrunch's Michael Arrington "People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that's evolved over time."

That is true. If the TMI (too much information) posts and status updates on Facebook and Twitter have taught us anything, it's that users apparently have little sense of boundaries in sharing personal or sensitive information with the anonymous masses. However, they do care about entities like Facebook doing it for them.

Users also don't like surprises--not even good ones. Facebook has a history of springing new services and redesigned interfaces on users with no warning. There is always a huge backlash and user uprising, then eventually everyone adapts and life goes on. Why not have a more public beta testing period, or at least announce a week in advance that a change is coming. A little forewarning goes a long way to gaining support from the masses.

So, Facebook, go ahead and put the framework in place--but make it opt in. Let users shoot themselves in the foot rather than having Facebook stabbing them in the back.

Trust me, it's a recipe for success for Facebook because here is how it will play out: Facebook introduces new features or services that share information with third-parties around the world, and provides ample warning and sufficient details regarding the use and privacy of the data, but puts the choice in the user's hands to enable it. Users don't read any of the information provided by Facebook and don't give privacy a second thought, and enable the service.

With this business model, Facebook gets the same net result--half a billion users freely sharing personal and sensitive information with the entire world via Facebook and its third-party partners--but without the legal or regulatory scrutiny. Instead of being the villain, Facebook is the hero for providing innovative features while also respecting the privacy of its users.

Give it a try. Seriously. You don't need to share data for us, because users--for the most part--don't really care about privacy any more. Give us the choice, and let us be the bad guys and you just rake in the profit.

You can follow Tony on his Facebook page , or contact him by email at tony_bradley@pcworld.com . He also tweets as @Tony_BradleyPCW .

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