Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg: the internet's 'Dr Evil'?

The billionaire is under attack for failing to protect the privacy of the social networkers who use his software.
Mark Zuckerberg gives a keynote address at the annual F8 developer conference in San Francisco last month.
Mark Zuckerberg gives a keynote address at the annual F8 developer conference in San Francisco last month.

"Facebook," goes the familiar slogan, "helps you connect and share with the people in your life." But then follows a less familiar rider: "Whether you want to or not." So runs the seditious blurb on Openbook, a website set up this month in the visual style of Facebook and designed to draw attention to the burgeoning volume of information about its users that the social networking site is making public.

Openbook is part of the growing revolt against what some see as Facebook's unacceptable erosion of privacy as it looks for ever more ingenious ways to convert its users into profitable targeted fodder for advertisers. What is different about this attack, however, is that for a change the slings and arrows are coming not from politicians or concerned consumer organisations, but from within the very walls of Facebookland itself.

Openbook went live on Wednesday, May 12. By the following day it had attracted 10,000 hits, rising to 808,000 on Monday - and a total for the week of 1.5 million hits and 335,000 visitors. This is viral moaning writ large. It comes at a time when the social networking site has caused grave offence across the Muslim world by hosting an "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" event last Thursday. Conceived as a protest in favour of free speech, the idea was triggered by censorship of an episode of the satirical cartoon series South Park, in which the Prophet was portrayed. The Facebook site was blocked on the day of the protest by Pakistan, where the stunt provoked demonstrations.

The incident demonstrates the growing ability of social networking sites to breach national and cultural boundaries. If it seems like only yesterday that the Facebook phenomenon exploded, that is because it was; it has taken less than six years for the site to go from a Harvard dormitory exercise in geek counter-culture to a 21st-century business giant with revenue last year of more than US$500 million (and rumoured to pass $1 billion this year) - and a growing reputation as the Dr Evil of the internet.

Facebook - or, as it was then known, The Facebook - received its very first press in 2004, in an article published in the Stanford Daily, the student-run newspaper serving Stanford University, in Palo Alto, California. "Classes are being skipped," reported Shirin Sharif on March 5, 2004. "Work is being ignored. Students are spending hours in front of their computers in utter fascination. Thefacebook.com craze has swept through campus."

Mark Zuckerberg, then a fresh-faced double major in computer science and psychology at Harvard, had written the code in one week, launched the site at his own university on February 6 and extended its reach to take in Columbia, Stanford and Yale by the end of the month. Already there were 10,000 users. The world has some anonymous slow-moving administrator at Harvard to thank for the Facebook phenomenon.

"There has been a bunch of hype at Harvard for the last few months about the administration putting together an online facebook for everyone in the school," Mr Zuckerberg told Sharif. "I got tired of waiting for them to finally put it up, so I just threw this site together myself." Why? "I know it sounds corny," Mr Zuckerberg told the paper, "but I'd love to improve people's lives, especially socially."

It certainly sounds corny now. Fast forward almost exactly six years. According to his own Facebook page, Mr Zuckerberg, the chief executive of the company he co-founded at Harvard, is now "one of the youngest billionaires in the world with personal wealth of $4 billion in 2010". At Harvard, notes the entry, "he was known for reciting lines from epic poems such as The Iliad". How appropriate then that his corny concern for his fellow students' social lives turned out to be something of a Trojan horse.

Last week the website Business Insider posted a leaked transcript said to have been taken from an instant-message conversation the then 19-year-old Zuckerberg had in his Harvard dorm in 2005. Chatting online with an unnamed friend, Mr Zuckerberg reveals a glimpse of where Facebook is heading. Boasting that he has already collected personal information from thousands of students, he adds: "So if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard … Just ask."

Then it gets worse. His friend asks: "How'd you manage that one?" and Mr Zuckerberg replies: "They trust me … dumb [expletive deleted]." The irony of a private internet exchange coming back to haunt Mr Zuckerberg is, of course, delightful, but it seems doubtful that the revelation will have pierced his messianic ego. For one thing, the hoodie-wearing alpha geek has four billion reasons not to care one bit, each one of them bearing the likeness of the first president of the United States. But more importantly, this is a man for whom the concept of privacy genuinely does not compute.

At a geeks' awards ceremony in San Francisco in January, Mr Zuckerberg shrugged off mounting criticism of his vision of ultimate transparency for all and suggested that privacy was, like, so yesterday, dude. "People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people," he said. "That social norm is something that evolved over time and we followed."

Not everyone agrees, of course. Facebook has been under fire since December, when it changed privacy settings, making certain information public by default. In a complaint submitted by consumer-rights groups to the Federal Trade Commission in April, a dozen online companies, including Google and Yahoo!, were named in a request for an investigation into a "massive and stealth data collection apparatus" that "threatens user privacy". We are, said the complainants, "now faced with a veritable 'Wild West' of data collection".

The king of this wild frontier, however, is Facebook, as it demonstrated at a conference for developers at the Design Center in San Francisco on April 21. The big theme was what Facebook calls the "social graph", the concept of complete and easy internet-wide connectivity between users - and, of course, the folks who want to sell them things - and the company unveiled a number of controversial features.

"We want," said Zuckerberg, "to have instantly social and personalised experiences everywhere users go". Facebook, said observers watching a webcast of Zuckerberg's presentation, was making a bid to become the very fabric of the web. "I think Facebook just seized control of the internet," posted one alarmed blogger. The company, wrote another, is "the Dr Evil of the internet, set on world domination".

It didn't help Facebook's image as a privateer of privacy when on May 5 the technology website TechCrunch exposed a bug on the Facebook site that allowed users to see their friends' live chat sessions. It was bad timing. The same day, 15 US consumer groups filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, alleging that the company had "engaged in unfair and deceptive trade practices with respect to the collection and use of personal data obtained by the corporation, in breach of Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act.

Seven days later, Openbook went online, run by three San Francisco software engineers and designers who are also "enthusiastic but angry" Facebook users, determined to change the company's ways. Facebook, say Will Moffatt and pals, "has made two clear mistakes here. First, they do not do a good job of indicating how public each piece of information you share on the site will be. "Second, they change the rules far too often. If you understood Facebook's privacy settings two years ago - or even six months ago - that information would be worse than useless with today's bewildering settings."

To show just how much information is out there, they have turned one of the company's own weapons on itself. Openbook is not a hack; the site exploits a publicly available programming interface developed by Facebook as a tool for software application programmers. It allows anyone, Facebook member or not, to search the entire site for recent updates by key words or phrases and recover postings and photographs from any Facebook user whose privacy is set to "everybody".

Serve them right? Well, maybe. Except, says Will Moffatt, one of the trio behind Openbook, "the problem is that Facebook 'upgraded' everybody to this setting, you have to opt out." The result - a depressing stream of self-centred, vacuous, banal and frequently obscene white noise - says a lot about the Facebook generation and can be embarrassing for all concerned. Try searching YourOpenBook.org for "I hate my boss" - but probably not if you are one. The list of recent searches is even more depressing.

Moffatt believes that "Facebook is going to have to react … The EU has much stricter privacy laws than the US and is much more likely to get involved. This could be their Microsoft moment." Perhaps. The difference is that Facebook's success is rooted in something far deeper than mere computer functionality: Zuckerberg's money tree has grown from the twin roots of human vanity and insecurity. As one enthusiastic early Facebook adopter told the Stanford campus newspaper back in 2004: "Nothing validates your social existence like the knowledge that someone else has approved you or is asking for your permission to list them as a friend. It's bonding and flattering at the same time."

Nevertheless, on May 13 - the day after Openbook went live - Mr Zuckerberg reportedly called a town-hall meeting at Facebook's headquarters in Palo Alto to address disquiet within the ranks. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, "many of the questions were focused on how Facebook planned to restore users' trust … Since then, Mr Zuckerberg and his inner circle have been keeping long hours … including working through his 26th birthday on Friday."

But does anyone outside of a few rights-literate commentators and analogue politicians really care about what Facebook is doing? After all, Facebook serves the tweeting generation, whose members, raised on reality TV, find themselves endlessly fascinating and feel the need to share their dullest thoughts, activities and photographs with the rest of the world. Zuckerberg's genius at Harvard - where, let's not forget, his other major was psychology - was to recognise that, to Generation Me, privacy equals non-existence on the virtual stage. Today, Facebook makes the reasonable point that people join up precisely because they want to share information about themselves.

"Some users care about privacy," said Nicholas Carlson, the senior editor at Business Insider, who posted the young Zuckerberg's leaked IM exchange. "But mostly, the only people who care about privacy are the people who make a living working for non-profit organisations with a mandate to care about privacy and journalists looking for a good story." Back in December 2007, Mr Zuckerberg apologised to Facebook users for the way the company had introduced Beacon, a feature that gathered information about users' spending habits on other websites and posted them back on their Facebook page for their friends to see.

After protests, including an online petition signed by 70,000 users, Facebook switched Beacon from being an opt-out to an opt-in option, but the bottom line was that Beacon survived; Mr Zuckerberg's psychology classes obviously paid off. And here is the important point about that episode: when Mr Zuckerberg said sorry in 2007, he did so to 57 million Facebook members. Today, less than three years later, there are 400 million of them, including 1.7 million in the UAE.

Facebook is a nation without borders, with a population larger than that of the US and, as he marches towards his objective of a world without personal borders, Mr Zuckerberg rules it with a mandate signed off by the passive collaboration of the vast, silent majority of its inhabitants. jgornall@thenational.ae

Published: May 22, 2010 04:00 AM


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