Facebook is often criticized over privacy. Just think of the launch of Beacon.
But listening to CTO Bret Taylor defend the company’s privacy practices yesterday at a hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, it’s hard to fault the company’s technology. Facebook is in many ways at the cutting edge of Internet security and privacy–and it has to be considering the large quantity of personal information that it stores.
Facebook’s privacy woes have not been caused by technical bungling. It’s hard to imagine, for example, the company suffering the sort of ongoing technical humiliation that Sony has recently experienced. Facebook’s record so far has been much better than that. Rather, it’s Facebook’s tendency to suddenly change the rules that have landed it in hot water.
Taylor’s discussion of how Facebook handles user privacy was thoughtful and impressive. “People will stop using Facebook if they lose trust in their services,” he said, a line we also heard from Google in last week’s hearing. He went on to outline the ways that Facebook allows users to control what happens to their data, in particular the fine-grained privacy controls that allow users to select who can see their posts. Users can set different policies for photos, status updates, and other kinds of content, and can even set special privacy policies for specific posts.
“We cannot satisfy people’s privacy expectations by creating a one size fits all approach,” Taylor argued.
Taylor highlighted that the company has worked with partners on new authentication technologies that allow users to share information with third parties safely, and noted, “We are one of the few Internet companies to extend our privacy controls to our mobile interfaces.”
What Taylor didn’t talk about is Facebook’s habit of changing its default privacy settings without giving users much notice. The last time this happened, for example, users logged into Facebook and were confronted with a long description of changes to how their would be shared. Few have the patience to sit down, understand the changes, and fix them.
This is where the company keeps going wrong. And no matter how sophisticated or thoughtful its privacy and security technology, Facebook can’t fix its problems until it gets the human factor right.