D-Day for Facebook – Will It Regain Trust With New Privacy Controls?

Looking back on the short lifespan of Facebook (just over 5 years old), few people would argue that the recent hysteria over Facebook’s seeming lack of regard for User-privacy is the biggest public relations disaster the firm has suffered to date (managing to overthrow even Beacon – the failed advertising platform that, ironically, also had Users up in arms over personal information being shared with others without Users’ approval).

Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg (the 26-year old whiz kid behind Facebook) has come out of this PR disaster looking cold, uncaring and like the big corporate dogs of yesteryear who sat in sterile boardrooms, laughing all the way to the bank as they profited off of “the little guy”. That might be an oversimplification of this scenario, but based on media coverage from the mainstream media, down to tech bloggers who have championed Facebook since its inception, Zuckerberg has earned every bit of the scorn and character attacks levied at him because of his refusal to respond to the growing chorus of complaints against Facebook.

After several prominent “godfathers” of Web 2.0 jumped ship and deleted their accounts (including Jason Calacanis (@jasoncalicanis) who sees Facebook as a beast whose hunger for control of our personal data will never be fulfilled), Zuckerberg finally responded to the outcries from Users, the media and governments (both here in the US and abroad in Europe) in an op-ed piece in The Washington Post on Monday. While Zuckerberg clearly seeks to reassure Users that Facebook gives them control of their own information and honors their privacy, he never once actually admits that Facebook goofed big-time to begin with. Below is an excerpt:

“The biggest message we have heard recently is that people want easier control over their information. Simply put, many of you thought our controls were too complex. Our intention was to give you lots of granular controls; but that may not have been what many of you wanted. We just missed the mark.

We have also heard that some people don’t understand how their personal information is used and worry that it is shared in ways they don’t want. I’d like to clear that up now. Many people choose to make some of their information visible to everyone so people they know can find them on Facebook. We already offer controls to limit the visibility of that information and we intend to make them even stronger.

Here are the principles under which Facebook operates:

-You have control over how your information is shared.
-We do not share your personal information with people or services you don’t want.
-We do not give advertisers access to your personal information.
-We do not and never will sell any of your information to anyone.
-We will always keep Facebook a free service for everyone.

We will keep building, we will keep listening and we will continue to have a dialogue with everyone who cares enough about Facebook to share their ideas.”

Once again, because he refused to admit in his op-ed that Facebook was wrong – that they blew it big time – and that, yes, Users are valid in being concerned about how Facebook (or any social network) handles their personal content, Zuckerberg was torn to shreds, again, by the media. Below are captioned titles from major news outlets who covered his op-ed piece:

Face It Facebook, You Just Don’t Get It – Huffington Post (Meg Roggensack)

Whatever side of the fence one sits on in this heated debate, the general consensus is that Zuckerberg and his army of pr people could have done a far better job at averting this disaster. How? By listening to the concerns of Users (expressed repeatedly in the media for the past six months) and by exercising, say it with me: transparency, transparency, transparency.

Facebook’s biggest mistake was in believing that, by not addressing a potential blazing fire when it was but a mere spark, the spark would simply dissappear. Just when we thought this was a basic lesson most companies have latched onto in this day and age of corporate accountability via social media, a goliath like Facebook stumbles on what even startups understand at heart: listening to the customer, being responsive to complaints and, when need be, apologetic is crucial to maintaining customer trust and loyalty (those two little words, “I’m sorry”, goes a long way).

Of course, another way to make amends with dissatisfied customers is to fix the original problem. Today, Facebook will launch their “fix” to the privacy problem they created — new “simplified” privacy settings. Will this work? We shall see. But a general rule of thumb is that the solution to a complicated problem is rarely simple (and issues of privacy online is a tangled web of legal, moral and governmental questions that can’t be fixed with new, “simplified” settings). Still, we all hope that Facebook gets it right this time (if so, everyone wins — except Facebook’s potential competitors waiting in the wings).

Facebook clearly crossed a line with Users. As marketers and entrepreneurs (and customers of Facebook) it will be interesting to see if and how this corporation recovers from the abyss they’ve plunged themselves into.

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