Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's very public view of privacy

In the decade since he created the world's dominant social network, the Facebook founder has pushed people to share more of their private lives

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 February, 2014, 4:48am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 February, 2014, 4:48am

Ten years ago, a 19-year-old Mark Zuckerberg sat at a computer in his Harvard dorm room and launched The goal, according to a 2009 Zuckerberg blog post commemorating Facebook's 200 millionth user, was "to create a richer, faster way for people to share information about what was happening around them".

If you believe the clumsy collegiate dating scenes in the movie The Social Network, however, Zuckerberg's motivation for creating what has become the world's largest social networking platform was, at least in part, to meet girls. He has definitely met the first goal. (He's also reportedly happily married, so the second one seems to have worked out for him, too.)

Today, Facebook has more than one billion active users who, each day, share nearly five billion items, upload 350 million photos and click the "like" button more than 4.5 billion times. Facebook is the world's most popular social networking service and the second-most visited website. Only Google gets more visitors daily.

All that ubiquity challenges how we think about what should be private, and what we broadcast to our "friends" - a term that now includes anyone we happen to remember from high school, that temp job from a few years ago, or last night's party.

With every new product launch, from News Feed to the doomed Beacon advertising play, it seemed Facebook would wait for the inevitable negative reaction on privacy, then announce minimal changes without fundamentally altering the new feature. It would explain away the fuss with careful spin: "We are listening to our users", or We look forward to your feedback". Each time, the Facebook people reassured us all they really want to do is make "the world more open and connected".

In 2011, I found myself at Facebook's Palo Alto headquarters in the US state of California for a gathering of the Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington-based privacy think tank. We met a number of Facebook engineers, advertising managers and public policy executives. All were being asked about privacy concerns, in a room full of privacy advocates, but not one ever uttered the word "privacy" in their responses. Instead, they talked about "user control" or "user options" or promoted the "openness of the platform". It was as if a memo had been circulated instructing them never to use the word "privacy".

Sitting in that conference room, with views into the open-plan office where dozens employees were coding away, shaping this powerful social-networking platform, I wondered: Does Mark Zuckerberg think anything should be private? Or does all information - photos, favourite movies, political views - want to be available for everyone, especially advertisers, to see?

I didn't get a chance to ask him. Instead, I created The Zuckerberg Files, an archive of all his public utterances. It includes blog posts, letters to shareholders, media interviews, public appearances and product presentations - nearly 100,000 words of the hoodie-ed wunderkind sharing his vision.

We're just starting to analyse the archive, but already we can pull out three principles that appear to be at the core of Zuckerberg's philosophy of privacy.

Updating the 1960s techno-activist slogan "information wants to be free", Zuckerberg clearly believes that "information wants to be shared", and that the world will be a better place if we start sharing more information about ourselves.

While comments from Zuckerberg in 2004 and 2005 point to a desire to simply position Facebook as a "really cool college directory", as the network grew, so did his vision. In a 2006 blog post apologising for the controversial rollout of the News Feed feature, Zuckerberg described his motivation this way: "When I made Facebook two years ago my goal was to help people understand what was going on in their world a little better."

A focus on "helping people become more open, sharing more information" started to emerge in Zuckerberg's rhetoric by 2008. And by 2010, in an opinion piece in The Washington Post, Zuckerberg argued that sharing more information - your photos, your opinions, your birthday, for example - would make the world a better place: "If people share more, the world will become more open and connected. And a world that's more open and connected is a better world."

In his initial public comments about what was then thefacebook, in a February 9, 2004, article in the Harvard Crimson, when Facebook was only five days old, Zuckerberg bragged about the site's "pretty intensive privacy options". He also acknowledged that he hoped the privacy options would help to restore his tarnished reputation following student outrage over his earlier site, that hot-or-not-inspired Facemash - uproar well-depicted in The Social Network.

From the start, Zuckerberg knew that privacy would be a significant factor in Facebook's success. He regularly mentions the site's "extensive privacy settings" in blog posts and interviews during the first few years of operation. But in many ways, Zuckerberg appears to view privacy as a barrier to the openness that his first principle demands.

This is most evident in a 2008 interview at the Web 2.0 Summit, when he noted, "four years ago, when Facebook was getting started, most people didn't want to put up any information about themselves on the internet. ... So, we got people through this really big hurdle of wanting to put up their full name, or real picture, mobile phone number". Zuckerberg predicted that the amount of information people will share online would double each year, and Facebook's best strategy was to be "pushing that forward".

When Zuckerberg does talk seriously about privacy, he almost always cites control. Zuckerberg's 2008 apology for the launch of News Feed notes that his original vision for Facebook included the fact that users must "have control over whom they shared [their] information with". His response to backlash over a change in the site's terms of service in 2009 was aptly titled, On Facebook, People Own and Control Their Information. That statement doesn't mention the word "privacy", but instead declares, "Our philosophy that people own their information and control who they share it with has remained constant". In an interview with Time magazine in 2010 Zuckerberg declares: "What people want isn't complete privacy. It isn't that they want secrecy. It's that they want control over what they share and what they don't."

The problem with Zuckerberg's philosophy of privacy is that over Facebook's 10-year history, users' ability to control their information has largely decreased. Default settings lean toward making information public, and new advertising and third-party platforms are increasingly spreading users' information beyond their direct control.

On February 18, 2004, only two weeks after Facebook's launch, Zuckerberg noted with surprise that the site had already attracted more than 4,300 users. It was nearly impossible to predict that 10 years later it would be used by more than one billion people. And it would be foolish to try to guess where Facebook will take us 10 years from now.

In an interview on the US Today show last Tuesday, Zuckerberg reflected: "When I look back over the last 10 years, one of the questions that I ask myself is, 'Why were we the ones to help do this?' And I think a lot of what it comes down to is, we just cared more." Perhaps he does care more. I just hope he starts to care more about privacy as well in the next 10 years.

Michael Zimmer is an assistant professor at the School of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and director of the Centre for Information Policy Research

Washington Post