Monday, March 10, 2008

Privacy and Control

In yesterday's interview with Mark Zuckerberg at SXSW in Austin, he addressed the failures of Facebook’s Beacon advertising launch last November. Today’s quotes Zuckerberg as saying, "Almost all of the mistakes we made, we didn't give people enough control. We need to give people complete control over their information. The more control and the more granular the control, the more info people will share and the more we will be able to achieve our goals."

I agree wholeheartedly with this assessment, and hope that Beacon will be able to overcome its rough start. Beacon tracks online purchases from participating partners (such as Amazon and Blockbuster) and announces them in a user’s newsfeed. Similar news is already shared when users add a new widget, upload pictures, change their profile, etc. However, when adding a new Facebook widget, the opt-in process is made clear to the user, while it was originally buried in a pop-up served during the Beacon purchase. Given the fact that this was a new feature, opt-in disclosure should have been made very clear as well as reversible, and should have been duplicated on Facebook as well (rather than residing only in a short-lived pop-up). Today these controls are in place.

Some privacy advocates feel that such disclosure is never appropriate, and would like to see Beacon killed off. I disagree – and apparently so do most of the users on Facebook, who freely share quite a bit of information about their changing interests via their Facebook pages. As a Facebook user, I love seeing what books my friends have bought or movies they have rented – that’s exactly the kind of sharing I value on Facebook. Tools such as Beacon make that a lot easier than having to remember and take the time to post what I'm reading or watching. However, I also want the ability to choose to share that information with full disclosure, change my mind, and opt-out completely if I like.

Facebook’s mistake is difficult to understand, since they faced much the same kind of uproar when they first introduced newsfeeds, again without proper user controls. Today, I consider the newsfeed a great feature. Hopefully they have finally learned their lesson.

That lesson goes far beyond Facebook. In today’s environment, consumers expect control over their information. They expect control over their experience. They expect control over how you communicate with them. They expect control, period. And if you fail to provide that control, you will have a rebellion on your hands – if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky, your customers will simply quietly leave and go elsewhere. Because, after all, they really are in control.

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