Q&A: Facebook exec defends site's privacy policies

Beard talks about Facebook controls, user desires and CEO Zuckerberg's reported privacy beliefs

Social networking giant Facebook has been taking it hard on the chin lately as critics contend that recent upgrades to the site and a bug that lets users view their friends' chat sessions raise a bevy of privacy issues.

However, in an interview with Computerworld yesterday, one Facebook executive insisted that users are happy with recent changes to the site despite the hornet's nest of controversy stirred up by online pundits and commentators. Ethan Beard, director of Facebook's developer network, noted that the millions of users that have joined Facebook's social network did so specifically to share information.

Beard also talked about the social network's controversial privacy settings, why users' information isn't private by default, and reports that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that people shouldn't expect online privacy.

What was the glitch this week that exposed private chats? I don't know the specifics of it. We take privacy very, very seriously here. We try to give out users control over the privacy of their data. At times you're going to have technical issues that we will work to address very, very quickly.

Were you surprised by the level of criticism of Facebook's plan to allow user information to be shared with third-party Web sites? In some ways, yes. We think a lot about our users and privacy when we're building products. Our goal is to make sure we're delighting users. I think the response from users that we've seen from the products we launched at [Facebook's F8 developer conference late last month] has been quite positive. People are actively opting-in to engage with the social Web. The response from users speaks very, very loudly that they love what we're doing. I think there's a lot of other talk that's not coming from users necessarily. There's been a lot of interest from the media, from organizations and officials. But to be honest, the user response has been overwhelmingly positive.

Are you saying the outrage has centered in the press? I can't say where it's coming from, but our users are very happy with it.

How do you respond to those who say Facebook's privacy settings are complicated and confusing to navigate through? I think that privacy is a complicated matter and each individual's view on privacy and how one thinks about it is quite nuanced. How I think about privacy and how I want to share my information is probably quite different from you. It requires us to create very sophisticated tools to deal with all these nuances and give people the control they want. It's quite complicated, so you end up with sophisticated controls, which end up being fairly complicated to use. We try to walk a balance between the two.

Are you working on ways to make the privacy settings easier to use? We're always looking to make our controls better and simpler to use. We don't have any specific changes to talk about right now.

Wouldn't switching from having users opt-out of strong privacy setting solve some of the issues? The reason that people use Facebook is to share information with their friends and to connect with things that are important to them. Sharing is not inherently a private activity. Frequently, we've found is that people want to share more and more broadly. You can't start completely private. That doesn't serve the purpose of helping people share information.

Do the concerns of U.S. Senators raise the stakes of the Facebook privacy debate? It's a testament to the impact that we're having on the world.

How can Facebook and social networks in general maintain today's phenomenal growth and avoid becoming simply a fad like the pet rock? The social aspect of what's going on in the Web is not new. Before the Internet, the first apps built ... were to communicate. E-mail was one of the first. [Finding ways] to connect with people and share with people has been going on for thousands and thousands of years. The information we really care about is the information we share with each other. I don't think that's a fad. I think it's part of a longer-term historical trend.

What new features are you working on now? We worked pretty hard to get everything ready for F8 two weeks ago. To be honest, we're catching a bit of a breather.

Has the recent reports that Facebook CEO Zuckerberg said he doesn't care about privacy caused much trouble for the company? I don't think Mark Zuckerberg really said that. The amount of time, energy, effort and resources to make sure that our users have control is a testament to how importnt it is that our users have privacy. Anything to the contrary is not true.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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