Large Business Pubs Writing More About Facebook Privacy Lately – Will That Affect Its Product Roadmap?

Although Facebook’s developer and advertiser platforms have been live for several years, large US business publications have been investigating potential Facebook privacy concerns much more prominently in the last few weeks. Whether you think recent articles by the Wall Street Journal and New York Times symbolize how investigative journalism can best serve society, or are just another example of sensational headlines based on limited information, the fact remains that these articles are getting published on the front page of influential business newspapers, and US Congressmen are noticing and publicly writing to Facebook the day after, for the second time this year.

Back in May, a few weeks after Facebook launched its “Instant Personalization” program at f8, Chuck Schumer held a press conference to call Facebook “The Wild West of the Internet,” and followed up by writing a letter along with three other US Senators to Mark Zuckerberg requesting that Facebook make Instant Personalization opt-in. What were the consequences?

We haven’t since heard anything further from Senator Schumer or Facebook regarding his request. Instead, Facebook has continued rolling out its Instant Personalization program to more partners — a few weeks ago with Flixster’s Rotten Tomatoes, and most recently with its biggest partner yet, Microsoft. About 21 weeks after US Senators were making Facebook product design requests from the steps of the Capitol building, Microsoft’s Bing search engine – a very popular service used by tens of millions of Americans (in every Congressional district) each month – is now a premier Instant Personalization partner.

So, given how the last round of press and Congressional interest played out, how different is the current round of privacy concerns from those back in May?

It’s important to note that the technical details of the concerns are different. After the launch of Instant Personalization, many in the press expressed concern that it represented a serious privacy violation because of the “opt-out” nature of the way Facebook shares users’ “public” Facebook data with partner sites, and suggested that the user experience should be purely “opt-in” instead. With the latest articles, the WSJ expressed concern over data being passed by some application developers to aggressive third party ad networks, and the NYT expressed concern over tactics that some marketers might use to gather personal data by micro-targeting Facebook Ads. These stories are generally focused on Facebook’s potential inability to completely police all of the many developers and advertisers on its platform on an ongoing basis — not necessarily  the launch of any new product, like in May.

One way in which this round of concerns is similar to those from May is that they do not appear to be widely expressed by users. In years past, Facebook users have expressed concerns over Facebook product changes, and the privacy violations they caused, very loudly. For example, in one case, in the days and weeks following the launch of the News Feed in 2006, hundreds of thousands of people used the News Feed to protest it — before stopping the protest because of how useful the News Feed turned out to be. In another example, in the days and weeks following the launch of Beacon, many Facebook users protested the way it worked, and after a protracted period of press concerns and user protests Facebook shut Beacon down.

In both the May concerns and October concerns this year, we haven’t seen those kinds of user protests, and all the data we have seen shows that Facebook’s US audience continues to grow. If many Facebook users were to stop using it due to privacy holes or other violations, that would obviously be a potentially catastrophic problem for Facebook’s future — but they’re not.

So what does the recent bump in privacy-concern-related press coverage and Congressional interest actually mean for Facebook?

For now, in the absence of significant user behavior changes, these issues mainly reflect the increasing complexity of Facebook’s corporate communications efforts. With over 140 million monthly US users, an application platform that is generating nearly a billion dollars in gross revenues for developers, and an advertising platform that is continuing to gain momentum across the board, the landscape of the Facebook ecosystem is much more broad and complex than it was when the News Feed launched – and the number of businesses, politicians, and others with interests in how things go for Facebook is only continuing to increase. Thus, as far as media coverage goes, Facebook should only expect that more articles like the most recent ones will be coming over time.

In terms of government relations, last May we asked, Will Facebook Become This Year’s Political Football? (And What Would That Mean for Its Product Roadmap?) So far, given Microsoft’s rollout of Instant Personalization a couple weeks ago, it appears that the Senators’ concerns haven’t resulted in big product roadmap changes at Facebook. Facebook will likely take steps to address the potential problems raised (like their proposal last week to encrypt user IDs), but until stories about potential privacy issues are followed by significant consumer fear, dissatisfaction, or behavior changes, we don’t expect the latest concerns to result in major product roadmap adjustments either.

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