Last Updated Apr 28, 2010 3:44 PM EDT
Facebook has been mired in privacy issues for years. CEO Mark Zuckerberg had better get past what he wants and start looking at what his company needs -- user data -- and figure out how to get it by giving something back to his customers. But he needs to do it soon, as the time to act and retain some control of the situation is quickly passing.
Facebook should have been anything but surprised at the contents of the senator's letter. Let's take a quick stroll down memory lane and remember how the company handled previous privacy storms
- In 2008, there were many web posts with instructions on how to change settings to reinstitute privacy on Facebook. The company also received heavy criticism over its advertising network that relied on user information to better target ads.
- In late 2009, Facebook planned to make it possible to see people's lists of friends, but then had to back down after user complaints.
I understand that Zuckerman wants to cement Facebook into the firmament of the web and increase the company's revenue. But revenue plans are no good if they antagonize lots of customers and, now, government watchdogs. Should the company continue down this road, expect further action by Congress, which is reacting not only to Facebook, but a broader wave of concern about online privacy. Although company management may think it can push the envelope, political reaction will impact not just Facebook, but an entire industry.
Here's an idea: let users opt-in to the program instead of making them opt-out, with Facebook offering a benefit for cooperation. The company could negotiate discounts with vendors or even temporarily underwrite discounts with slightly lower advertising prices to give people a reason to turn over their information. Those consumers who want to stay private will still be part of the ad audience and not grow resentful enough to seek another social network.
Although I rarely advocate bribing users, in this case Facebook is asking customers for an additional form of payment. Some quid pro quo would be wise. Unfortunately, that means Zuckerman must give up getting his own way in deference to a bigger picture. So far, his track record isn't encouraging.
Image: Flickr user bunky's pickle, CC 2.0.