Sharing 'the whole point' of Facebook
2010 was the year privacy issues blotted Facebook's copybook, but Mozelle Thompson, an adviser to the social networking behemoth, shrugs off the bad press.
The site aroused mass outrage when it changed its privacy settings and exposed members' information, including pictures, friends and preferences to the eyes of the World Wide Web.
It quickly backtracked, but about 31,000 members left en masse in protest and politicians and regulators, including the United States Congress and the European Union, continue to investigate the company's privacy policies and seek tougher controls. These could limit the ability of Facebook and Google to tailor advertisements to site users, impacting on advertising revenue.
Mr Thompson, former commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission, who was in Auckland last week for the Asia Pacific Privacy Authorities forum, said Facebook's detractors seemed to forget that sharing personal information was the whole point of the site.
"People tend to come to Facebook because they have already made the decision that they want to share information with someone.
"To create a situation where the default choice is not sharing information would seem to defeat the purpose of the website."
Facebook had continued to increase its membership, despite its privacy faux pas.
"It still continues to add a million-plus new users a day, so I think that speaks for itself."
The company has copped flak for using confusing privacy settings and constantly tweaking those tools, making it more difficult for people to limit who they share information with.
Facebook was simply serving its members, he said.
"With a website like Facebook, you don't just have one single audience. Some people want granular control, so they can control every piece of information. Some people want simplified controls so they only have to choose A, B or C.
"To try to find the right mix is important and I think we offer a bit of both. Most sites offer you nothing. They don't even tell you what information you're sharing."
Much has been made of the lengths to which members must go to delete their accounts and Facebook's favoured deactivation option, which freezes members' accounts without deleting any information, so they can easily return to Facebook.
Mr Thompson said people rarely wanted to delete all the information they had spent hours putting online, and if they wanted to, they could download it in a file and take it with them.
Very few members made a clean break with Facebook.
"Most people who deactivate accounts come back within a year."
A myth doing the rounds was that Facebook sold or shared members' information with advertisers, Mr Thompson said.
"The reason Facebook is valuable is because advertisers can contact Facebook and say, `Can you target an ad at someone who looks like this', and Facebook does. If we were giving away your personal information, then we'd lose value."
The site was a "pioneer" in offering people tools to control and share their information, and didn't always get it right, he said.
"The challenge is to hear what users are saying and see what the experiences are and change them when users want something different."