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Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg responds to privacy concerns

Zuckerberg Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has responded to the privacy concerns raised in this post by Consumerist.  The post pointed out that a change Facebook made to its terms of service left the impression that the social network could keep and use copies of user content (e.g. photos, notes, and personal information) in perpetuity even if users removed the information and closed their accounts.

"One of the questions about our new terms of use is whether Facebook can use this information forever," Zuckerberg wrote.  But, oddly, he did not answer that question.  Instead he opted for a rather roundabout explanation: if you send a friend a message via Facebook's e-mail system, Facebook must create mutliple copies of that message -- one for your "sent" message box and one for your friend's inbox. That way, if you leave Facebook, the copy your friend has would not be deleted. Fair enough.

The implication is that, by extension, Facebook also keeps copies of all your other information, too. 

But the e-mail example has a major hole in it. Copying content makes sense for e-mails, where the medium itself depends on messages being copied. The thing is, Facebook users generally do not 'send' other types of content to one another, including photographs. Rather, they post them on their own profiles for others to stop by and see. There's no obvious reason that Facebook would need to perpetually store multiple copies of photographs -- because, as far as the user is concerned, they appear only in one place.

Plus, Zuckerberg seems to underestimate his users' understanding of e-mail.  My guess is most Facebook users don't think that if they close an e-mail account that all the e-mails they've ever sent will disappear.  Frankly, it's not e-mails that are at issue here; it's this other, more personal category of content -- the stuff that people post within their own digital walls.

Zuckerberg goes on to write that despite the presence of "overly formal and protective" language that Facebook uses to cop eternal rights to your content (a slightly condescending formulation, if you ask me), "In reality, we wouldn't share your information in a way you wouldn't want. The trust you place in us as a safe place to share information is the most important part of what makes Facebook work."

Facebook should at least get credit for announcing the terms-of-service changes in this Feb. 4 blog post, even though it drew no specific attention to the content ownership amendments, focusing instead on new prohibitions against harassment and providing false information.

And, truth be told, I doubt the company has any nefarious plans to sell all your old photos to the government, or spill out your archived wall postings into the public domain.  But you'd think one of the biggest social media companies in the world -- one that's dealt with outrage over privacy issues before -- would have taken steps to avoid a publicity stink bomb like this.  Step one: proactively explain to its tens of millions of users exactly what these types of changes mean.

In that vein, it seems dubious that users will accept Zuckerberg's entreaty to 'just trust us' when, in his response to user confusion and suspicion, he has skirted the very question that he would have us believe he is addressing. 

Users still don't know why or whether Facebook keeps all their content on file without their explicit permission.  Not just messages, but "photos, text, link, audio, video, designs, ads and anything else that you post on or through the Facebook Service."

A direct answer to these concerns might help with the trust-building.

-- David Sarno

 
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