Privacy Problems as Governance Problems at Facebook

January 4th, 2010 by Grace Meng

You know that feeling when you’ve been pondering something for awhile and then you read something that articulates what you’ve been thinking about perfectly?  It’s a feeling between relief and joy, and it’s what I felt reading Ed Felten’s critique of Facebook’s new privacy problems:

What Facebook has, in other words, is a governance problem. Users see Facebook as a community in which they are members. Though Facebook (presumably) has no legal obligation to get users’ permission before instituting changes, it makes business sense to consult the user community before making significant changes in the privacy model. Announcing a new initiative, only to backpedal in the face of user outrage, can’t be the best way to maximize long-term profits.

The challenge is finding a structure that allows the company to explore new business opportunities, while at the same time securing truly informed consent from the user community. Some kind of customer advisory board seems like an obvious approach. But how would the members be chosen? And how much information and power would they get? This isn’t easy to do. But the current approach isn’t working either. If your business is based on user buy-in to an online community, then you have to give that community some kind of voice — you have to make it a community that users want to inhabit.

This is a question we at CDP have been asking ourselves recently — how do you create a community that users want to inhabit?  We agree with Ed Felten that privacy in Facebook, as in most online activities, “means not the prevention of all information flow, but control over the content of their story and who gets to read it.”  Our idea of a datatrust is premised on precisely this principle, that people can and should share information in a way that benefits all of society without being asked to relinquish control over their data. Which is why we’re in the process of researching a wide range of online and offline communities, so that when we launch our datatrust, it will be built around a community of users who feel a sense of investment and commitment to our shared mission of making more sensitive data available for public decision-making.

We’d love to know, what communities are you happy to inhabit?  And what makes them worth inhabiting?  What do they do that’s different from Facebook or any other organization?

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