Monday, May 17, 2010

The Price of Privacy

Here's an update on my job situation as a follow-up to my blog entry last week. I found another position within the same company in a role that fits me better by an order or magnitude. To make it better, I received a payraise too.

Being proactive gets you noticed. In fact, it was remarked that my attitude demonstrated that I already had the qualities that my new boss was seeking in the successful candidate.

Privacy has a price. Don't believe me? Ask Facebook. Before I explain that, though, let's have a history lesson.

Facebook started as a joke of sorts. According to Wikipedia (which, in turn, got this information from a 2008 Rolling Stone article), Mark Zucker wrote its predecessor as a Harvard version of HotOrNot to take his mind off of a girl that had dumped him. This evolved into a means for college students to link up in order to stay in touch. Finally, it became the behemoth that we know (and love?) today.

The problem started when Facebook realized that it had a substantial user base.* When you have over 100 million users and all of their associated data, you start to wonder if there is any way to make money off of this. Granted, Facebook started receiving venture capital less than 6 months after work was started on the site in January 2004. But venture capital is one thing - the big payoff (and the reason for the VC investment in the first place) is something else entirely.

* This is speculation, of course, but I daresay it isn't far from the truth.

The first inklings of this desire to make beaucoup bucks reared their ugly heads in November 2007 with the Beacon project. Since the media uproar and subsequent public outrage that followed, Facebook has constantly been in the spotlight (often for poor reasons rather than positive ones) due to its ever changing privacy policy. While the true reasons for the constant changes to the privacy settings, etc. may never be known, it isn't too hard to speculate that Zucker et al are continuing to strike business deals with other websites where they exchange demographic and preference data in exchange for cold, hard cash.

Now a new wind is blowing, however. While social networks aren't new (c.f. Jive Software, Intralinks, Wellness Layers, etc. which all make some form of enterprise-class social networking / collaboration software), the popularity of Facebook in spite of its "mayhem and nonsense" has made it the only social network site worth considering...until now. Recently, the media has been raving about four NYU students who have decided to create an open source Facebook competitor (named Diaspora). Why have they decided to do this? They, like many of the rest of us, got fed up with the lack of control over how our data from Facebook is used, and they want to do something about it. In fact, in the few short months since they announced their intention, they have already raised USD$115,000 in "crowdsourced" funding (i.e. not coming specifically from angel investors).

Again, their idea isn't new. There are other alternatives already under development (OneSocialWeb, for instance). But what they are doing highlights the issue of privacy at Facebook. After all, who wants to stand up and make the claim that their privacy policy is longer than the American Constitution?

In all seriousness, I don't see how Facebook can win this battle. If you keep quiet about it (like they did with Beacon), someone will eventually find out and roast you alive. If you tell people about unexpected use of social data (like Google recently did when they said they inadvertently collected data from unsecured WiFi networks while their streetcam cars were roaming the streets) then the world will start by expressing concern (or by outright blasting you to bits) over the disposition of the data and end by...well...comparing you to Facebook. All in all, I would claim that the latter scenario is preferred since Google at least has some credibility and will successfully defend itself on the strength of the word "inadvertently."

Still, it's only due to its existing reputation that Google will ultimately escape unscathed. Facebook can only wish that it enjoyed this luxury.

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