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Privacy Vs Openness; Public Interest Vs Corporate Interest

Wednesday, May 19, 2010 at 07:22 AM EDT

The explosion of public opinion and negative press about Facebook lately has been absolutely fascinating to watch for several reasons.

First, it delineates the clear existence of two different models of innovation and company operation -- for instance, the Ubuntu development model versus the Apple product development model -- and exemplifies all too clearly the consideration and input (or lack thereof) that users and user interests have in the evolution of a product.

[This analogy is not ideal I admit, because Ubuntu is not a company and Apple is. Hopefully my comparison is still logical.]

Ubuntu

In Ubuntu you have a product that is built by the community for the community. While Canonical is a business which underwrites a fair amount of Ubuntu's development, by and large decisions on functionality, aesthetics and the direction of the software are all discussed and debated in the open, by anyone who wishes to participate. There is very much a democratic ethos to the software, which extends far beyond the operating system itself -- people feel as though they have a real voice in the evolution of Ubuntu. Other examples of this model include Kaltura and WordPress.

Apple

In Apple you have a diametrically opposed situation. Apple has a sleek a sophisticated reputation to be sure; but also one that aggressively and closely guards their own corporate interests and corporate secrets -- secrets and interests they are all too happy to protect with an iron first. You need only look to the recent debacle with the "discovery" of a lost next generation iPhone, and the arguably excessive reaction from the Rapid Enforcement Allied Computer Team (REACT), which included search and seizure, to see the sort of influence that Apple enjoys and is all too happy to leverage.

God forbid you make the mistake of creating a project that begins with a lowercase "i" -- apparently Apple feels that letter is reserved for them and them alone. But I digress.

Steve Jobs is renown for designing products that aim to be "game changing" and establish needs and markets that weren't there before -- the iPod, iPhone, and potentially iPad are all cases in point. Almost by necessity this entails looking beyond the needs of your users into uncharted territory, and in the process trying to affect user demand as well as the flow of the technology market. But to me, what we see in Apple is much more than that and extends to a personal quest or mission that is far more about Jobs' personal agenda and visions of grandeur than what users want or need. Fortunately for them, and for Jobs, many Apple enthusiasts have reached the point where anything that Jobs does is instant gold.

For me though, the fascist PR tactics that Apple uses to quash the slightest encroachment into their territory (whether true or merely perceived) is just too much to swallow. I use Apple products because my department at the university is an Apple department -- if it were left up to me I'd happily use something else.

Facebook

In Facebook I very much see Apple; and in Mark Zuckerberg I very much see Steve Jobs -- but I don't mean that in a good way. Facebook clearly maintains its own interests over those of the user community that has made it such a vast success.

Sure it's a business, and businesses need to be financially profitable, yet what we're seeing in Facebook -- as has been demonstrated in both the Beacon debacle, and the current PR mess -- characterises a company that just doesn't care what its users think, in the ultimate Jobsian way. Zuckerberg's alleged IM conversation from 2003 is the ultimate testimony to that, in which he reportedly calls the early Facebook users "Dumb f--ks" for providing him with their personal details.

A willingness to share personal details is a sign of trust, yet for Facebook that trust is being exploited and mocked at the highest levels of the company -- indeed, exploited trust and privacy seem to be the fuel for an entirely new business model for Zuckerberg.

Thus we arrive at the second important implication of the current Facebook debate -- the notion of privacy.

Google Buzz

Another example comes to mind immediately here -- Google's Buzz. Google'z Buzz appears to be an attempt by the technology giant to erode some of Facebook's success with updates and sharing of updates, websites, photographs and videos. Integrated with Gmail, Buzz initially identified all of your email contacts and added them all as contacts. The problem? Not everyone wants to be closely linked with their contacts.

One lady in particular found herself linked with her abusive ex-husband and was extremely displeased with the epiphany. Google quickly implemented a change to make the Buzz privacy options more visible, and in fact added the ability to opt out of it completely.

The situation was pretty messy for Google from a public relations standpoint, but to their credit they acted quickly and seemingly sincerely to resolve it, alleviate user concerns, and provide people with options to ensure it doesn't happen. I fail to see anything remotely like this coming out of Apple or Facebook.

Implications

The nature of how we interact online has enormous implications for our privacy and personal lives; far more than most people realise I suspect. Each incremental piece of information we reveal about ourselves may seem insignificant at the time, but when you consider that search engines like Google index everything that is visible online, make it searchable, and indeed are finding new ways to interpret the connections and meaning that this information has for other aspects of our lives -- for instance, browsing history leading to increased relevance of advertisements -- the realities of an "insignificant" comment or photo aren't so insignificant anymore.

The nature of this reality is, I suspect, one of the key reasons why social networking has -- or had been -- so popular. You could control who was able to see what, and ensure (as much as possible) that the special pieces of your life were reserved for select people only. However recognition of the right and need to respect and protect a user's privacy appears to be no longer ensured.

This is the reason why Mark Zuckerberg's notion of the age of privacy being over is so inherently irresponsible and arrogant. You see, that's not his decision to make; it's not his call to make. I don't care if he is the CEO of one of the most popular sites on the internet -- the people, each individual user -- make their own decisions on what constitutes privacy and what it means to them.

I wholeheartedly I believe in openness, as I hope is demonstrated through this blog. However I also wholeheartedly believe that openness should not be imposed, it must be embraced.