Buffeted by privacy snafus and the lingering fallout from a damning, years-old instant messaging thread, Facebook chief exec Mark Zuckerberg switched into full-on damage control Monday, confessing that the sprawling social network had “missed the mark” when it comes to its complex privacy controls — and pledging to do better.
In an open letter published Monday in the Washington Post (whose chairman, Donald E. Graham, just so happens to sit on Facebook’s board of directors), Zuckerberg wrote that Facebook has been “growing quickly” and admitted that “sometimes we move too fast.”
“Many of you thought our controls were too complex,” Zuckerberg’s letter reads. “Our intention was to give you lots of granular controls” — uh, you can say that again — “but that may not have been what many of you wanted. We just missed the mark.”
Zuckerberg promised, in “coming weeks,” privacy controls that will be “much simpler to use” — including an “easy way to turn off all third-party services” that can access your account.
But Zuckerberg wasn’t just announcing new privacy features in Monday’s open letter; he was also clearly trying to bridge a growing trust gap between Facebook and its increasingly suspicious users, especially in light of reports last week that Facebook (among other social networks) had been passing along user name and IDs to advertisers (including Google’s DoubleClick and Yahoo!’s own Right Media) without users’ consent. Those privacy loopholes have since been plugged, say Facebook, MySpace and other social networks.
But Zuckerberg is also being dogged by an embarrassing IM thread from when he was a 19-year-old Harvard student, bragging that he’d gathered personal information from thousands of users for the nascent TheFacebook.com. “People just submitted it,” Zuckerberg messaged, “I don’t know why. They ‘trust me.’ Dumb [expletive].” (This comes via Silicon Alley Insider.)
Naturally, the indiscreet IM thread has ignited controversy. Some argue that Zuckerberg shouldn’t be held accountable for something he’d written when he was still a teenager (all of six years ago, mind you). Others say the remarks illustrate a cavalier attitude toward user privacy.
The debate seems to have struck a chord with Zuckerberg, who bent over backward in his letter Monday to emphasize Facebook’s “core principles,” which include seeking to build a “better world” that’s “open and connected.”
Zuckerberg also revealed a bit more in an e-mail to blogger Robert Scoble, confiding that “we’ve made a bunch of mistakes” but that he hopes “people understand that our intentions are in the right place.”
Well, as I’m sure Zuckerberg understands, people tend be believe actions more than words, and a revamped set of simple, easy-to-use privacy controls — including, say, the option to start from scratch and opt in to sharing options rather than having to opt out — would be a step in the right direction. But rebuilding trust with Facebook’s users will be a long, slow process, and the fewer privacy missteps between now and then, the better.
What do you think of Zuckerberg’s letter? Does he sound sincere to you? Willing to give Facebook and its upcoming privacy reboot the benefit of the doubt? Or are you ready to jump ship for good?