A valuable lesson from Randi Zuckerberg: Online privacy is complicated

It’s become almost axiomatic that Facebook privacy settings are so complicated even relatively savvy users get tripped up by them, especially since the giant social network has a reputation for changing them without warning, resetting defaults, and so on. In a deliciously ironic illustration of this phenomenon, Randi Zuckerberg — sister of Facebook (s fb) co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg — was caught in a privacy snafu on Christmas Day when one of her family photos was shared publicly. But there’s a larger point behind all the schadenfreude, and it’s about more than just Facebook being evil: online privacy is complicated, and inventing new software settings isn’t really going to help.

As detailed by BuzzFeed, the problem started late Christmas evening, when Vox Media staffer Callie Schweitzer shared a funny photo on Twitter of the Zuckerberg family using the social network’s new Poke feature — an app that allows users to send messages or photos that self-destruct after a certain amount of time (a feature that itself can be seen as a response to privacy concerns). Randi Zuckerberg saw the photo because she was mentioned in the tweet, which has since been deleted, and told Schweitzer that sharing it publicly on Twitter was “way uncool.”

Randi Zuckerberg tweet

Schweitzer apologized, and said she believed the picture was public because it showed up in her feed, and that she sees Zuckerberg’s updates because she signed up for them via Facebook’s Twitter-style “subscribe” feature. After some back-and-forth, Zuckerberg determined that the Vox staffer saw the photo because she is connected to a mutual friend — a friend who tagged Zuckerberg in the photo, and thereby shared it with her entire social graph. Zuckerberg then shared what she felt was the lesson we should all take from this incident, namely: “always ask permission before posting a friend’s photo publicly.”

It would be nice if figuring out online privacy was that simple, but it isn’t — not by a long shot. And it’s not just Facebook, although it is the most obvious example of this problem, if only because it is so massive that virtually everyone is either using it or knows someone who is. It’s tempting to think of this as just another sign of how Facebook is an evil social overlord, deliberately tweaking privacy settings so that it can sell our private details to the highest bidder, but that’s a little too facile.

Privacy becomes infinitely more complex online

The reality is that privacy issues we normally take for granted in the “real” world become almost infinitely more complicated when we move online: if Randi Zuckerberg had taken a physical photo of her family, she could only have shared it with a small group of people — and by definition, those people would be close to her and her family, and so privacy wouldn’t be a problem. But when anyone can “tag” a photo and instantly re-share that photo to an audience of thousands, things get complicated really quickly.

[tweet https://twitter.com/dannysullivan/status/283975831401930752]

Should Randi have asked before she shared that picture on Facebook? Maybe. But she (perhaps naively) trusted that it would only be seen by close friends and family — not thinking of how a friend’s decision to tag it could affect where and with whom it was shared. Should her friend have asked before she tagged it? Perhaps. I tagged a friend once in a photo and she got upset with me because she didn’t want people to know where she was — not because she was doing anything bad, but because she didn’t like the feeling of being tracked. That never even occurred to me until she mentioned it.

To be fair to Facebook, figuring these kinds of nuances out isn’t easy — and implementing them in the form of software controls isn’t either. Facebook has gotten a lot of flak (much of it from Google) for not allowing people to download the emails of their friends, but it has always argued that those emails belong to your friends, and sharing them should be their choice, not yours. We may disagree, but there are good arguments on either side (Facebook now lets you do this but only if your friend specifically allows it).

There are all kinds of things we need to learn — or re-learn — when it comes to online behavior, and how to handle privacy is one of them. It’s easy to throw rocks at Facebook or make fun of Randi Zuckerberg, but the bigger issue is not going away: if anything, it is getting even more complicated.