Are Facebook’s Views on Privacy ‘Naive and Utopian?’

Although an attempt to marshal support for “Quit Facebook Day” appears to have more or less fizzled, the social network continues to fight the perception that it either doesn’t care about privacy or hasn’t been diligent enough in giving users a way to control their private data, despite the recent changes to its privacy settings. In the latest move, a member of the House Judiciary Committee sent the company a letter on Friday saying he’d like more information about its privacy policies, and is considering holding a committee hearing into the recent changes.

Communications studies professor Nancy Baym said in an interview that she thinks one of the biggest problems for Facebook is that it has a “fundamentally naive and Utopian” view of what privacy means online, which stems from the fact that the company is run by “a bunch of computer science and engineering undergrads who don’t know anything about human relationships.” Baym, who teaches at the University of Kansas, also writes a blog called Online Fandom, where she wrote recently about why she hasn’t quit Facebook despite her concerns about the way it handles private information. She said it’s ironic that Facebook “understands so little about human communication, since it has built what is effectively the largest interpersonal communication network in the world.”

David Kirkpatrick, in his new book “The Facebook Effect,” quotes the social networking site’s founder and CEO as saying: “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly,” and that “having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” Such a statement, according to Baym, is not only fundamentally naive, but indicates just how privileged Zuckerberg as a wealthy, white, heterosexual male really is — in other words, someone who has nothing to fear from being transparent about his life, and no need to maintain two different identities. As Baym put it:

I don’t think having different online personas has anything to do with a lack of integrity — it’s a reality of human interaction. Why shouldn’t people have the right to connect with people who share their political beliefs but share different things with their colleagues at work? We can go to work but also go to political meetings outside of work hours…This is like having to go to one building and do everything there.

Transparency of the kind Zuckerberg is recommending, Baym said, may be fine for someone like the Facebook CEO or any of the other senior executives at the social network, but it might be a different thing entirely for someone who’s gay and doesn’t want that information to become public for fear of reprisals at work. In that case, she said, having two different identities online is simply a matter of self-preservation. Baym — who has her own book coming out soon called Personal Connections in the Digital Age — also noted that Facebook as a corporation doesn’t follow the same kinds of rules about transparency that it wants its users to obey:

I would buy this whole philosophy about having a commitment to sharing because it makes the world a better place if Facebook did more of that themselves. Why don’t they livestream all of their meetings? Instead, they have top-secret meetings about all of this stuff and don’t tell anyone what happens in them until after they’ve made a decision.

Of course, Facebook isn’t advocating that users share all of their information in the way Baym suggests, so perhaps expecting the entire company to do so is a little unfair. But the professor also said she finds it offensive that Facebook continues to change its tune as to what’s public and what isn’t. For example, users were previously able to keep their friends lists private, but Facebook recently made them public by default (although it later responded to criticism of this move, and changed its options to allow friends lists to be hidden). “It’s a huge ethical problem,” she said. “They keep changing the rules. That’s what really bothers me.” For what it’s worth, Zuckerberg said after announcing the network’s most recent changes that he didn’t foresee changing Facebook’s privacy guidelines again for a long time.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): Could Privacy Be Facebook’s Waterloo?

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Crunchies 2009