We’re giving a polite “golf clap” for The Federal Trade Commission and Facebook on today’s announcement of a voluntary agreement designed to protect user privacy while allowing Facebook – and an entire ecosystem of online service providers – to continue innovating.
First off, it’s almost always better to get private industry and federal regulators to reach a mutual agreement on resolving complaints. Far too often, the kneejerk response from regulators and elected officials is to call for new legislation. And those new laws usually just restrain innovation by legitimate companies, while those intent on bad behavior ignore new laws just as they ignored the old laws.
It this case, the FTC and Facebook tackled a list of complaints that were raised by a small but media-savvy industry of professional privacy advocates.
In general, the 800 million users around the globe who joined Facebook do so in order to make their information more visible to public and to their network of friends. After all, Facebook is a sharing tool, not a privacy program. And it boggles my mind that more ink is spilled over privacy angst with social networking –- especially when there are real benefits when attaching an actual name to online conversations, as we described here.
So now, Facebook will dedicate even more resources to ensure that users are aware of all its privacy nooks and crannies and empowered to make good decisions about their privacy options. And like Google did in their FTC agreement, Facebook will be subject to independent privacy audits for the next 20 years.
There’s a risk with agreements that force formerly innovative companies to ask regulators for a permission slip before rolling out new features and free services.
This is all good. But there’s a risk with agreements that are driven more by media melodrama than consumer concern: it can force formerly innovative companies to ask regulators for a permission slip before rolling out new features and free services.
Hopefully, Facebook’s agreement will make users feel more comfortable and ultimately help them to make informed decisions about sharing personal information. Facebook should also take its new commitments seriously so that it can avoid privacy entanglements moving forward.
Because if the concerns of a few focused privacy professionals outweigh the new services and benefits received by hundreds of millions of users, then consumers really will have something to complain about.