Facebook Privacy: Why Zuckerberg Will Never Get it Right


Déjà vu! Privacy groups are asking the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to block new Facebook policy changes — again. Facebook’s increasing pressure to monetize their one billion plus users worldwide incentivizes them to continuously push boundaries on user privacy.

Facebook is constantly stirring controversy over the way they handle user privacy. So, as avid Facebook users we can wonder, will they ever get it right? No, I don’t believe they will, but they’ll survive nonetheless.

Why can’t they get it right? For one, Facebook must continue to push boundaries in order to keep and grow their market share in the advertising space. Advertising makes up 88% of their total revenue and leveraging users’ information helps them compete against the likes of Twitter and Google for those advertising dollars. Secondly, our digital world is evolving so quickly that “getting it right” can be a gray area. Because of this, we can expect more investigations and lawsuits as regulatory bodies like the FTC begin to draw the line between legal and illegal.

First things first, how did we get here? Last week the FTC announced that they are reviewing Facebook’s new proposed privacy policy. This new, more detailed, privacy policy was the result of a $20 million class action privacy lawsuit against Facebook which was settled last month. But a coalition of six major consumer privacy groups believe the privacy changes violate the 2011 order and settlement Facebook made with the FTC.

Facebook is certainly testing (some say overstepping) their limits now and will continue to do so in the future. How exactly are they doing this now? There are two main things that online privacy groups are up in arms about. For starters, the new privacy policy allows Facebook to routinely use profile pictures and names of Facebook users for commercial and advertising purposes without the user’s consent.  This means that if your friend Sally likes Pepsi, your newsfeed could display “Sally likes Pepsi” then suggest a “related post” from Pepsi. If you click on the post, which does not have to be labeled as “sponsored,” Pepsi pays Facebook, and Sally has no idea that her information was used in this way. The second reason online privacy groups are mad is because this policy also applies to users under the age of 18

This leads us to the first reason Facebook will never get it right. Facebook must push these boundaries in order to beat out the other popular advertising platforms. Leveraging users’ information is beneficial to advertisers, and these advertisers are the reason Facebook is raking in over $5 billion in annual revenue. Leveraging your personal network allows advertisers to target you in a more meaningful way, which can lead to more users clicking on their ads. Zuckerberg has created the largest social network in the world, so you better believe they will continue to leverage your information in order to grow their company — and you’re not always going to like it.

The second reason Facebook will never get privacy issues right is simple: because we don’t really know what “right” is just yet. The FTC, which promotes consumer protection among other things, was established in 1914. This was long before consumer’s personal information was both widely available and inexpensive to access. We now live in a digital world where many smart people are finding new ways to leverage big data, including consumer’s personal data. This makes the FTC’s job to protect consumers much more cumbersome.

As the FTC continues to review Facebook’s privacy policies over the years, we will continue to hear of the ways Facebook is “getting it wrong.” This is simply because it is FTC’s responsibility to draw the line between legal and illegal. With over $5 billion in annual revenue, Facebook can likely afford a few fines and even $20 million lawsuits, if it means finding the best way to monetize their users. Facebook has the incentive to keep pushing this line as much as they can, so we should expect to hear of them overstepping their limits every once in a while.

“It’s better to ask for forgiveness than to beg for permission” — a common mantra of the start-up world, and one that Facebook will continue to use as they grow their company.  Facebook will keep ruffling feathers in terms of privacy issues because they have to compete with Twitter and Google, who are leveraging their own users' information, for the big advertising dollars. 

Lastly, as the FTC reviews Facebook privacy issues which will happen every two years for the next 20 years, we will likely hear more about this social network powerhouse overstepping its boundaries. A primary goal for any company is to optimize the value of their product. And as the saying goes, “If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.”