Ask Mark Zuckerberg what privacy means to him, and the Facebook co-founder and CEO will tell you it’s a fluid concept.
Over the weekend, Zuckerberg sat for a brief on-stage interview at the Crunchies, the annual awards ceremony hosted by the blog enterprise TechCrunch.
Asked by TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington about his thoughts on privacy, a persistent issue that has dogged Facebook throughout the young company’s history, Zuckerberg explained that to his mind, the development of the Web has fundamentally reshaped people’s expectation about what information should be private, and the extent to which they are willing to live their lives in a public forum.
“When we got started just in my dorm room in Harvard, the question that a lot of people asked was, ‘Why would I want to put any information on the Internet at all?'” he said.
“Then in the last five or six years, you know, blogging has taken off in a huge way, and all these different services that have people sharing more information. And people have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. And that social norm is just something that’s evolved over time.”
Zuckerberg explained Facebook’s recent overhaul of the site’s privacy policies as an effort to keep in step with that evolving norm. Namely, that people expect more of their information to be publicly available, and that some of the walls that were built into Facebook’s original privacy apparatus don’t make sense anymore.
“We view it as our role in the system to constantly be … innovating and updating what our system is to reflect what the current social norms are. A lot of companies would be trapped by the conventions and their legacy of the systems that they’ve built,” he said.
“We view that as a really important thing to always … keep a beginner’s mind and think what would we do if we were starting the company now and starting the site now. We decided that these would be the social norms now, and we just went for it.”
With the recent privacy update, Facebook required each of its more than 350 million users to review and update their privacy controls. But what it billed as major step forward in its evolving and often strained relationship with the privacy community quickly came under attack.
Facebook set the default control for sharing information, such as photos and status updates to “everyone,” meaning that content would be visible to anyone across the Web, not just Facebook users, unless the setting was changed.
What’s more, Facebook removed the option to limit certain basic information, such as a person’s gender and city, explaining that people who participate in social networking sites today expect that information to be publicly available, making the same argument about shifting social norms that Zuckerberg articulated over the weekend.
That defense rang hollow to some consumer groups, who have argued that Facebook rigs the system to coax more information from its users. Just over a week after the changes took effect, a coalition of 10 organizations petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to open an investigation into Facebook’s privacy changes and force the company to reinstate some of the old controls.
The FTC has not formally acted on the complaint, but the issues raised figure to at least play a role in the commission’s ongoing consideration of its regulatory approach to online privacy.
Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at InternetNews.com.? Based in Washington, D.C., Kenneth’s coverage areas?range from government regulation to e-commerce and online media.