Is Facebook unethical, clueless or unlucky?

Sent this to my email newsletter earlier today… you can join the list at

UPDATED/RELATED (9:30AM December 14th): 1. Excellent post from Dan Gillmor on why he deleted his Facebook page, which supports my thesis below.  2. The EFF’s comments on Facebook’s horrific behavior is great supporting evidence. These two articles appeared DAYS before my rambling piece below. 3. Facebook reached out and asked me to do a call with them. This call will occur this afternoon. Please post updates below (or link to this story so I can link back).


Title: Is Facebook unethical, clueless or unlucky?
Location: CalaCompound, Brentwood, CA
Date/Time: December, 13th 2009 11:20AM
Subscribers: 18,463
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Facebook proved again this week that they are either the most
unethical or clueless internet company in the world. An amazing
accomplishment since Facebook is also one of the most promising, and
certainly fastest growing, internet companies of all time.  Perhaps
I’m being hyperbolic (who me?), or maybe they are a little of both,
but the fact remains they screw up on important issues almost as if
it’s a “best practice” to do so.

In case you missed it, when you logged into Facebook this week you
were road blocked with a popup explaining that they “we’re making some
changes to give you more control.” Sounds good, and like most users
looking to quickly get into a website or application, I simply clicked
through the message. How important could it be?

When faced with a TOS (Terms of Service) or license the world has been
trained to hit the word “agree,” and click, click, click until they
get to the actual website or software they were trying to get to in
the first place.

Everyone in the industry knows this, and certainly a company built off
of studying social behavior like Facebook would. Since the ToS is
considered a formality, it is up to technology companies–in fact our
industry–to behave. If we don’t behave well then we are going to get
regulated by clueless politicians and policy makers. That would suck
for everyone.

So What Happens When you Clickthrough?
In this case, if you simply click through the windows you’ve exposed
all of your private Facebook information, including comments, friends,
pictures and status updates, to “everyone.” In other words clicking
through changes everything in Facebook terms–unlike every other
license or update screen you’ve experienced in your life.

I’m sorry, what the frack just happened? I turned over my friend list,
photos and status updates to everyone in the world? Why on earth would
anyone do that with their Facebook page?

The entire purpose of Facebook since inception has been to share your
information with a small group of people in your private network.
Everyone knows that and everyone expects that. In fact, Facebook’s
success is largely based on the face that people feel save putting
their private information on Facebook.

When you do get to the second page a series of confusing radio buttons
default–yes defaults–to giving everyone access to your social graph.
Wow. I’ve been using the internet since before images were supported.
I’ve been a member of every social network since Six Degrees and Ryze,
almost a decade before Facebook became available to the public, and I
was confused by their settings page. An average user, certainly, has
no idea what is going on by these changes.

So why is Facebook trying to trick their users?

Simple: search results.

Facebook is trying to dupe hundreds of millions of users they’ve spent
years attracting into exposing their data for Facebook’s personal
gain: pageviews. Yes, Facebook is tricking us into exposing all our
items so that those personal items get indexed in search
engines–including Facebook’s–in order to drive more traffic to

So why is this wrong?
While there is nothing wrong with having a service that is “public by
default,” it is highly unethical to flip your users over to public in
a such a deceitful way

Twitter is, of course, public by default, and we all know that
Facebook is obsessed with Twitter innovations including their short
status updates, their API and most of all, their “open by default”

Facebook has had a couple of innovations in their history, like their
application layer and news feed (which is now gone), but for the past
couple of years they’ve given up on innovation and focused on stealing
ideas from Twitter and out-executing them, while not caring about user
rights. This is challenging for Twitter, which is run by the highly
ethical Evan Williams and Biz Stone. In fact, those two guys are
massively conservative when it comes to their user base.

Facebook continues their non-stop copying of Twitter, and even after
the absurdly stupid “Facebook Beacon” debacle, they continue to try
and sneak unethical behavior past the masses–and the industry.

The result? They’re winning and winning big!

It is so depressing when one of our leading companies bases their
ethics on “will we get caught?” and perhaps more precisely: “if we do
get caught will it cost us anything in relation to the money we’ll
make when we go public?”

The Issue Facebook is creating for all Internet companies
Another problem Facebook is creating with their reckless behavior is
that they are simultaneously making users distrust the internet and
bringing the attention of regulators.

As an industry we should police ourselves and do everything we can to
create trust with users.

It would be great if the “adults” sitting around Zuckerberg’s cube
would explain to the Golden Child that just because he’s on the Forbes
billionaires list and he generates a mob of sycophants around him at
the TED conference, that doesn’t mean he gets a free pass to bring the
heat down on all of us.

Behave yourself dude!

How would you do it better?
If Facebook was more concerned with ethics than world domination, they
would simply post a popup that said something like:

“Dear Facebook Members,

Good news, we’ve now added the option to share your content with
everyone! Be sure to check out this new feature here and be sure to
consider if you want to expose your content to the world before
changing your settings!”

Of course, that would result in 1% of users turning their service to
“everyone” (i.e. public) a month. It would take years to convert a
meaningful amount of users and their personal data into revenue
generating public objects. With Facebook’s IPO–the one that will save
Silicon Valley–around the corner, there is simply nothing we can do.

Facebook’s IPO and revenue growth trumps user’s rights, right?

Growth at all costs!

Long live the Golden Child!

Ticker: FCBK FTW!

Can I still get a friends and family allotment?



Questions (hit reply, or post to your blog):

1. Is Facebook clueless, unethical or just unlucky? Why?
2. Will Facebook’s latest behavior result in more lawsuits and/or
industry regulation?
3. Do you trust Facebook with your information?

all the best,



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107 thoughts on “Is Facebook unethical, clueless or unlucky?

  1. If people are really worried about their privacy, all they have to do is check out their privacy settings and set them properly. Its not hard. It does not take a lot of time.

    My opinion? Its kind of like the drivers on the road… just because everyone can get a liscence, doesn’t mean they should.

    Same goes for using the Internet. If you don’t understand it, stay the hell away from it.

  2. If you’re a Facebook user then you’ve been duped way before this latest gambit – you are only now realizing it! That can’t be pleasant!

    They are not unethical – they are operating under business/legal ethics… and pretending to care about personal freedoms/privacy… whatever sells…
    They are not clueluess – it’s not search they are after, it’s money, and they will do whatever they can (I was about to say that goes unpunished, but I believe they will also tolerate punishment if the payback is right)
    They are not unlucky – I never cease to be amazed by the number of people who complain about and criticize facebook, but still use the service! Luck has nothing to do with it.

    They may be dishonest, manipulative… but this is common knowledge and practice, so it’s not really about ethics is it?

    This is as ridiculous as smokers blaming tobaco companies… but hey… that worked!

    I wonder if, for argument’s sake, Facebook were to charge $100 a year per user… and would simply offer people a “free account” in return for giving up all their privacy – would people still buy into it? How is much is your privacy worth to you? There’s no such thing as free! Say it out loud – there’s no such thing is free!

  3. Jason, thanks for being on this. My own feeling is, were it as simple as simply exposing everything on fb, making the network and its activity transparent (turning it into an open social network), then, maybe a bait and switch would have taken place, maybe fb users who thought they were in a closed system will have to go elsewhere now, having been forsaken, but, that would not be such a bad thing. Check that: that would not be as bad as what I suspect we will be getting: a morass where the platform remains, not transparent, but privacy is enforced selectively, and only as the network interfaces with consumers. That is, those controlling the ads, fb, and those who pay fb (with dollars or traffid), are going to get more and more insight into specific fb users and their activities, start targeting them more specifically. Fb I think just wants to open the stream to those who would monetize it. They are not committed to the open web. Given their philosophy, I do hope they go the way of AOL or myspace pretty soon. Maybe they will end up having been a transitional net experience for a ton of people.

  4. Ummm, your own fault. It was really NOT that hard to understand the privacy settings page where the ‘default’ settings were the ones you had previously setup and you could choose to now open up your information to the world. As highly non-techie as I am, it was plain English. You didn’t understand it? I wonder why.

  5. I just selected save current settings and told it not to index, the only thing that would of been index would of been what Everyone could see anyway. I just reviewed my settings after this and things seem fine.

  6. I guess this happens in every product and every industry out there.
    Nevertheless, this being digital media translates into more and quicker critics.
    So….this, I would think, is as we say in Spanish,

    “Gajes del oficio!”

    Not to be distorted or taken so seriously…even less so if comparing
    it to Twitter or other COMMERCIAL venues….


  7. One of the deceptions on privacy involves settings outside
    the Privacy control area. The entire friends list exposure
    is a huge red flag and being tweaked daily as facebook tries
    to pacify the uproar but must keep the friends list exposed.

    Settings – Application Settings WOW, are some in for a shock
    when they change the default view of “RECENT USED” to
    “AUTHORIZED”.. Some see TONS of apps they dont even recall
    accepting lurking there with full access to every single piece
    of their info, pics, videos.. EVERYTHING.. this makes the
    privacy settings of what friends applications can share very
    very important..

  8. “the fact remains they screw up on important issues almost as if
    it’s a “best practice” to do so.”

    What if it actually is? Their growth is crazy.

    They get more traffic and are growing faster than sites that screw up less than they do.

  9. While I go into great detail with examples proving my point, the gist of the matter is…

    1) I believe Facebook is totally unethical. They’ve proven it time and time again with their idiotic decisions.

    2) Lawsuits are going to fly. I think as time goes on people will find themselves in legal situations created solely due to the lack of privacy. I would assume that as more users become aware of the issues, that a class action lawsuit is imminent.

    3) When Facebook was much smaller, I trusted them, but they grow to move themselves into a bigger player in the internet, they continue to make decisions that I do not support, and cannot support.

  10. although I’ve never met Mark Zuckerberg, I believe Facebook’s move to open up user information to everyone probably has more to do with its VCs/investors than its founder. The investors are the ones that need returns in a relatively short time period and, with the price that’s been paid by most of them and the existing revenue multiples for media/online advertising companies, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re constantly trying to push the envelope. As for the personal information in question, with all the bots trolling the internet and social networks these days, the large number of Facebook applications that download that information and the number of websites that use Facebook Connect to get access to some of that info, most of the information being referred to is already “semi” publicly available to the people who would tend to misuse it like spammers/hackers/etc.

    The government could get involved, but for most people, I would assume (could be wrong assumption) that most of the personal information in Facebook is already available to the public somewhere else on the web, weakening any case the government would have against Facebook. Besides, who doesn’t have pictures of themselves or videos somewhere on the web that are a lot more damaging to their image or privacy than the information in Facebook. With everybody walking around with a GPS device and a camera connected to the Internet, this situation will only get worse.

    I do not trust Facebook with my personal information, nor do I trust any other site or online service with my personal information. Call me paranoid. Besides, nothing’s free. The advertising business model implies that the user data will be used for “targeted ads”. I think it’s wishful thinking to believe that the personal information we put in the cloud is private.

    That being said, what Facebook is doing is wrong. Using an industry standard and the assumed trust that users have in the TOS process to make sweeping changes to a user’s rights is both unethical and abusive behavior, not unlike how monopolies treat their users/customers. Facebook is behaving like a company that firmly believes it has a strong enough position with its users to shove just about anything down their throat without much consequence. Does Facebook believe it has a monopoly position in the social web?
    There’s a silver lining here for those of us concerned about the dangerous amount of power that Facebook wields on the social web. By opening up its data to the world, Facebook is at the same time making it a lot easier for competitors to access its users and migrate them to competing services. The value of Facebook is in its data, the fact that it is extremely difficult for users to port their personal information to a competing service, the amount of time spent and regularity of the visits of its members. By opening up the data to search engines and the web, other social networks will now be able to more easily move users to their services along with their data. I believe it is in Facebook’s best interest to remain as closed as possible and keep control of what comes into its kingdom. They already have over 350M+ active users and are still growing double digit year-to-year. Everybody is on Facebook or will be at some point. By opening up to the Internet, it is at risk of morphing into it. Facebook should follow Apple’s model, not Twitter’s. Facebook is an Internet within the Internet that third parties want access to and it should control who/what gets in and when as much as possible, just like Apple does with the iPhone. Facebook’s semi-openness is its biggest asset. Opening up will cause its demise.

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  12. This decision is full of win, because it increases the amount of amateur porn available to all, not just boyfriends/girlfriends.

  13. I’m a little confused; the whole point of Facebook is to make it easy to find and connect with people and communicate with them easily. That’s pretty tough to do it you keep yourself hidden away. These comments all make it seem like the users forgot that and are treating FB like it should be used for business or secure communications or something.

    Facebook is a SOCIAL tool. Treat it like you’re at a party, sharing stories and cell phone photos.

    Oh, and by the way, FB kept all of my personalized security settings, including hiding me from search engines. People who haven’t taken the time to set their security profile are getting what they deserved.

  14. Ill give my opinion from my experience as an affiliate marketer/
    Jeff Putz got to this blog and post because hes probably inteligent and tech savvy/
    no average Joe is not, and statisticaly half of the people are dumber then he, and hes dumb/
    so jeff ever bought anything from spam in your email or an ad on google ?
    no because your smart but as money on the net says, most people are not.
    theyr ignorant mob. and theyre easy to use and abuse/

  15. This is frustrating.
    There are many Facebook applications for
    the business community, but many C-level
    execs are reluctant to explore. This type
    of deception only makes them write it off as not
    worth the time.

  16. How old are you people? It was a simple process and all my original settings (only friends) showed. What’s the big deal? Y’all are the same people who read the sign on the door that says pull and continue to push at it and cuss because it won’t open.

    You have a typo in your article: “In fact, Facebook’s
    success is largely based on the face that people feel save putting
    their private information on Facebook.” (save should be safe)

  17. I’m deleting my profile, and encouraging my children to do likewise. If they want, they can recreate them with less personal detail, or even with entirely false information. I’ve also dumped my Twitter account – 99.99%+ of everything on twitter is meaningless , useless, vapid crap.

  18. Unethical – YES – Definitely
    Clueless – YES – It would seem so
    Unlucky – NO – They’ve been lucky that it has taken this long for uproar

    I think that Facebook have been wrong too many times on privacy issues now. First they had it setup so that you couldn’t remove your information from their servers (found to be illegal) and then there was the whole Beacon thing in 2007. And now this! When will people realise that this is not a company that it is safe to share your data with.

    I put a post up that expands on these ideas:

  19. This is a bit melodramatic Jason.

    I love that my Facebook posts can now be public. And if I choose, I can make them private too with the simple click. Simple, easy and anyone can understand it. If you don’t get it, that is you and not FB.

    What’s the controversy. This gives you more options and flexibility.
    Kudos to FB for making the change.

    FB did make a change that I hate. When a video or photo is posted, it no longer showes up on the right margin. This is how I kept up with the latest of my friends. I love to see the latest and greatest images of friend’s trips and work. Now, its gone and I wish it would come back. It has taken a lot of the fun out of FB for me.

    Stop whining and inspire us with something positive.

    “Its easy to think in black and white, but life is subtle and, to understand it, you need to see shades of gray” – Unkown

  20. I’ve never trusted FB. I give minimal information away and barely login and contribute to it. I am tempted to ditch it as well. I got my “new settings” page yesterday and I have to agree most users will just click the default radio buttons. There’s something inherently wrong when people don’t trust a company that holds a lot of private information.

  21. I am at a loss to undestand what the fuss is about. Nothing on the internet
    has ever been private and if people expect their posted information to be restricted to only certain viewers, they are in lala land. People should not ever post anything they don’t think the world should know. Discretion is the better part of posting.. no matter where, even in private e-mails. Only financial transactions are protected by encryption with the vendor and even they have been hacked into, although, in most cases, that type of encryption is reliable. Writing on social media is rather like holding a personal conversation on a crowded subway .. don’t expect people within earshot not to listen in.

  22. I went through my wife’s and my Facebook privacy settings.
    They seem to be the same, with only Friends for the important stuf
    stuff, other than Search part.

    My philosophy is to Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS)

    There post was fairly simple, but it did startle people
    including me. It’s best to keep stuff simple, we all lead a
    busy life and having to listen or read long explanations is
    pretty cumbersome.

  23. I still haven’t opened an account with FB, but have been
    tempted in the past to sign up so I can see my friends’ pages.
    If a lot of people open up their page (accidentally or
    otherwise), it will reduce the likelihood of me signing up
    since I can see stuff without joining. Overall, it seems
    like an unnecessary move by them since FB is still growing.

    Main reasons I haven’t joined are that I already waste too
    much time online and also I’d rather get a tiny bit of ad
    revenue for myself rather than let others profit from my

  24. Like others have said (in the comments above), I had no idea that my “personal infomration” was being broadcast out to the whole world. I do know that anything and everything you say on the internet is public and you darn well better not say *anything* that you don’t want to have used against you in a court of law. It is a wonderful social media, but I was 100% clueless about all this “public sharing business. I still don’t fully understand the implications.


  25. Call me clueless or call me crazy, The ‘theys’ know when we go
    to the bathroom in a series of subscription data bases whose
    access is purchased by whomever has the bucks to buy. The main
    most detailed data base, we hope, is controlled by the ‘thems’
    in charge of controling and containing a world population of
    happily clueless humans.
    I have fun on facebook….my settings are restricted (LOL)…
    and I get to have fun and an occasional warm and fuzzy feeling,
    which is more than I get from the other data bases that know my
    stuff. AHHH’freedom’
    PS. not only do they know when you go to the bathroom …yep
    they know the number and the color,

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