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Facebook is on top of the world. Its continued growth is nothing short of amazing and it now has over 175m members worldwide. It's adding 600,000 each day.
Of course, Facebook has yet to turn its popularity into the type of revenue it needs to thrive long-term but if there's one thing that could bring Facebook down, it's not revenue. It's privacy.
Or, more accurately, the company's privacy flubs.
When Facebook launched News Feeds and Mini-Feeds in 2006, it didn't go over too well with users. CEO Mark Zuckerberg was forced to admit that "We really messed this one up." The company went on to add privacy controls and today, News Feeds and Mini-Feeds are popular, integral parts of the Facebook service.
Then came Beacon in 2007. Facebook's experimental advertising program was designed to make online advertising social and Zuckerberg launched it in the advertising capital of the world, New York City. He promised big things but the only big things that came from Beacon were the privacy complaints. Users, watchdog groups, regulators and even a non-profit political organization led the fight against Facebook's 'innovative' and invasive new advertising concept.
Again Zuckerberg was forced to apologize, writing:
We've made a lot of mistakes building this feature, but we've made even more with how we've handled them. We simply did a bad job with this release, and I apologize for it.
The latest major flub? A quietly-introduced change in the Facebook terms of service that gives Facebook the right to do with user content what it wants - in perpetuity. That's right, even if you remove your Facebook account, users still grant Facebook:
...an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to (a) use, copy, publish, stream, store, retain, publicly perform or display, transmit, scan, reformat, modify, edit, frame, translate, excerpt, adapt, create derivative works and distribute (through multiple tiers), any User Content you (i) Post on or in connection with the Facebook Service or ... (ii) enable a user to Post.
As Consumerist.com, which broke the news, put it: "Facebook's New Terms Of Service: 'We Can Do Anything We Want With Your Content. Forever.'"
Enter Mark Zuckerberg, stage left, as per usual.
According to the young CEO:
Our philosophy is that people own their information and control who they share it with. When a person shares information on Facebook, they first need to grant Facebook a license to use that information so that we can show it to the other people they've asked us to share it with. Without this license, we couldn't help people share that information.
He goes on to explain that Facebook needs a perpetual license because of the social nature of the service. After all, if you send a photo to your friends on Facebook and later leave the service, your friends still might want access to it. Zuckerberg points out that website creates multiple 'copies' of each piece of information, one for the content originator and one each for all the users it's sent to. Just like email, he observes.
He concludes by stating:
We're at an interesting point in the development of the open online world where these issues are being worked out. It's difficult terrain to navigate and we're going to make some missteps, but as the leading service for sharing information we take these issues and our responsibility to help resolve them very seriously. This is a big focus for us this year, and I'll post some more thoughts on openness and these other issues soon.
It all sounds very nice but that isn't stopping some from fighting the change. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is planning to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission in the United States.
The question I keep asking myself is: at what point will Facebook really cross the line?
So far, it has managed to recover from its privacy flubs but after the latest, it's quite obvious that for all of the nice talk about respecting users and doing things better in the future, Facebook continues to make the same kinds of mistakes over and over again and its track record when it comes to privacy definitely isn't improving.
Of course, users have full control over what they share and where they share. Nobody is forced to upload personal information to Facebook or to even use the service in the first place. But there's an awful lot of content being shared on Facebook that ensnares those who aren't using the service (e.g. through group photos, etc.). Facebook's position on privacy matters affects them too.
At some point, it seems quite clear that Facebook is going to have to get its act together when it comes to privacy or it's likely that users, lawyers and regulators will decide to do the job themselves. That - not a lack of a steady revenue stream - just might be the biggest risk Facebook faces as it takes over our lives.