Anticipating the inevitable blowback to the Federal Trade Commission's official press release that Facebook "Deceived Consumers By Failing To Keep Privacy Promises," Mark Zuckerberg wrote a blog post. (Actually, it's a Facebook Note.) Given the FTC's particularly brutal framing of its settlement with the social network, Zuck wisely chose his words carefully, and he actually comes off sounding like a pretty decent fella. Especially the part where he says, "I'm the first to admit that we've made a bunch of mistakes."
Before we launch into Zuckerberg's comments, we ought to offer the broad strokes of the FTC's new sanctions on Facebook. The proposed settlement is generally congruous with reports from earlier this month and emboldens our earlier hypothesis that Zuckerberg is losing his war on privacy. The FTC's release (read the full version at the bottom of this post) states unapologetically, "The proposed settlement bars Facebook from making any further deceptive privacy claims, requires that the company get consumers' approval before it changes the way it shares their data, and requires that it obtain periodic assessments of its privacy practices by independent, third-party auditors for the next 20 years." Details of the sanctions passed with unanimous consent from the commissioners and will be subject to public comment for the next 30 days, before the FTC can make it official. Yes, the FTC means "everyone" when it says "public" -- you can send your thoughts to the government with this handy online form.
The FTC's invitation for public comment likely motivated Zuckerberg to be assertive in defending Facebook's history of privacy violations. Although he waits until the fifth graf of his by-lined note to admit that his company's "made a bunch of mistakes," the Facebook CEO sounds sincere enough. "Even if our record on privacy were perfect, I think many people would still rightfully question how their information was protected," he writes. "It's important for people to think about this, and not one day goes by when I don't think about what it means for us to be the stewards of this community and their trust."
The post goes on to provide some bullet-pointed specifics on ways that the social network is trying "to give you more control over your Facebook experience" as well as the announcement of two new top tier executive positions devoted to privacy. Former data security executive Erin Egan is taking over as Chief Privacy Officer for Policy, and Michael Richter, the current Chief Privacy Counsel on Facebook's legal team, will become Chief Privacy Officer for Product. Sounding somewhat humble, rather than defensive and stopping short of addressing Facebook's actual privacy violations, the whole thing deserves accolades for being a tour-de-force of PR-genius. We found ourselves nodding along with each paragraph and even thinking, "Wow, Facebook does seem like it's being proactive in protecting my privacy."
But Zuckerberg's well-sculpted response won't change the fact that privacy concerns are actually starting to threaten Facebook's business model in some parts of the world. News emerged on Monday that the European Commission is preparing to ban the company's ad-targeting strategy and could take legal action as early as January. That's just one of many on-going investigations into Facebook's privacy practices around the world, all of which will probably be drag out for years to come. With Facebook reportedly planning a $100 billion initial public offering next year, we can also expect the company to step up its spin game in the coming months.
Nevertheless, we just can't get over how nice Mark sounds in this blog post. (So nice we just jumped to a first name basis.) The young billionaire and Bison burger enthusiast is famously tight-lipped when it comes to serving as Facebook's spokesman. It's easy to furrow your brow at or even make fun of the guy for his standoffishness, but when you read about people who know him closely, pretty much everyone seems to agree that Mark -- awkward, stubborn and a little sweaty as he can sometimes appear -- actually is a really likable guy. Take, for instance, the tiny tribute Mark paid to Steve Jobs, when the Apple co-founder resigned as CEO just a couple months before his death. He clicked "Like" on Jobs's topic page on Facebook. It was almost cute.
Mark being a likable guy is hardly a panacea for mounting ill will over Facebook's privacy practice, but it can't hurt. The official actions of world governments against the social network could add up to real trouble when it comes to Facebook's IPO hopes, but the company's struggle to win back user trust is much more important in the longrun. As TechCrunch's Eric Eldon pointed out this week, "Despite some missteps over the years, [Facebook's] ongoing popularity suggests a large amount of that trust is still there."