After one of the most tumultuous months in its young history, Facebook is planning to announce features intended to offer its hundreds of millions of users simpler privacy choices.
The last few weeks have not been kind to the Internet's second most popular Web site, which has been pilloried by privacy activists and slammed by some members of Congress. The flap has spawned clever interactive graphics showing how Facebook has gradually exposed more user data, tools to fix your privacy settings, and reports of internal discord among employees who may fear that the negative attention would jeopardize a lucrative public stock offering.
A Facebook spokesman on Friday confirmed that the changes will arrive "shortly," without elaborating. "The messages we've received are pretty clear," Andrew Noyes said. "Users appreciate having precise and comprehensive controls, but want them to be simpler and easier to use. They also like the new programs we have rolled out, but want simple and easy ways to opt out of sharing personal information with applications and Web sites."
The new controls, which could arrive as early as next week, will feature simpler and easier-to-use controls for users who care about them, while continuing to offer granular controls for those who want them as well, a company source said. No doubt The New York Times will redraw its helpful road map to Facebook's privacy options.
When the generally laissez-faire Economist writes an article saying regulators may be able to "justly" target Facebook, and The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan warns that "when we lose our privacy, we lose some of our humanity," these are signs that Zuckerberg has lost the zeitgeist. So is the flood of money to the ephemeral idea of Diaspora. (Time magazine's cover story featuring an interview with Zuckerberg, on the other hand, was far more flattering.)
Some of these news clippings almost appear to have been copied and pasted from The Onion, which has been covering the issue in its own way. There was the Facebook phishing scam that snared a board member and a security hole that leaked some private messages. Then there's the October release of "The Social Network," starring Jesse Eisenberg and Justin Timberlake, which appears to be using a different name to keep the lawyers at bay.
The danger here lies, as it often does, in regulatory overreach. Sen. Charles Schumer, the New York Democrat, is demanding a federal investigation and the issuing of government "guidelines" on privacy disclosures. Like most members of Congress, Schumer is a lawyer-turned-lifelong-politician with no experience running a business; he's been on the taxpayers' payroll ever since being elected to the New York State Assembly at the age of 23.
If Facebook has made privacy missteps that harmed its users, existing law gives the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general ample authority to investigate and litigate. The lawyers staffing those agencies, hardly timid souls, have proven to be eager and willing to do just that.
And, if there's evidence of lawbreaking, no doubt class action lawyers will leap at the chance to enrich themselves at the expense of Facebook's owners and employees.
But to argue, as Schumer does, that the possibility of future harm demands immediate regulation would short-circuit the legislative process. At the very least, before rushing to pass final judgment, it may be worth waiting a week or so to see what Facebook actually does.
Update May 23 at 11:55 p.m. PT: Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg has an op-ed in Monday's Washington Post saying the company has made some mistakes: "Our intention was to give you lots of granular controls; but that may not have been what many of you wanted. We just missed the mark." It hints about what may be coming next: "In the coming weeks, we will add privacy controls that are much simpler to use. We will also give you an easy way to turn off all third-party services."