the future is coming

In Defense of Google and Facebook

The talk of the tech blogs last week was Google’s big reveal about the extent of privacy violations that happened when Street View cars “accidentally” picked up e-mails and passwords from unencrypted networks as they rode by. Wave to the nice Google Wi-Fi, Mr. Password! The same day, CEO Eric Schmidt joked that people who don’t like it “can just move.” For privacy advocates, Schmidt’s response called to mind Mark Zuckerberg’s comments about the end of privacy in the midst of backlash over Facebook’s oversharing redesign.

It’s easy enough to ridicule Zuckerberg and Schmidt as tone-deaf corporate weasels, spouting high-minded rhetoric about openness while brushing aside user fears about privacy. Intel Nitasha has certainly done a brisk trade on that subject. But where is the disconnect between the masses and the people who build the products of their daily lives actually coming from? All those headlines about crimes against privacy — which, let’s be honest, you probably found on Google or hit recommend to share on Facebook — make these violations sound so creepy. It’s like the Faustian bargain for free Internet is finally coming to light. Still, the truth is that our outrage about the handling of our personal data on the web doesn’t seem to make us want to stop participating.

Earlier this year, when the latest wave of privacy concerns began to crest, the first Google search prompt when you typed in “how do I” was “How do I delete my Facebook account?” Facebook remains guarded about its exact active user growth rate, but has anyone actually noticed an appreciable drop in their number of “friends”? Given the chance to opt out ahead of the launch of Street View in Germany, only 3 percent of households signed up to have their homes blurred. Even after everywoman Nancy Walther Graf sued Zynga, the maker of the popular real-time simulation game FarmVille, for privacy violations, her public Facebook wall featured a steady stream of posts like “Nancy is sharing Cranberry Bushels from their Market Stall in Farmville!”

Maybe consumers are coming to terms with the idea of redefining privacy in the age of social media. Look at the “meh, so what?” response to the latest Facebook privacy loophole, in which it was revealed that advertisers could glean a user’s name by tracking back from a referrer ID. After all, many reasoned, is having online advertisers know our name or what apps we use really so different from the system that delivers us unsolicited catalogues in the mail after a credit-card purchase?

The new model for addressing privacy concerns seems to be “build first, correct later.” You rely on the hive mind of privacy watchdogs, always poised to go into hysterics. But there’s an unarticulated good-faith agreement between technologists and consumers that once a privacy loophole is exposed, it will be fixed. Like that.

Indeed, last week, the FTC dropped its Street View investigation after Google beefed up its privacy practices and reiterated that it had not and would not use the data it collected. (However, a multi-state probe led by Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal, who’s up for reelection, is still looking into the matter.) Over the weekend, Facebook suspended developers who had been sending data to third-party firms on suspension; of course, those parties may still be able to scrape the data without Facebook’s approval.

Perhaps our complacency is merely a concession to the fact that Facebook and Google have made products so indispensable that we’re willing to sacrifice our anonymity to avoid the oblivion that comes with opting out. But whatever the reason, maybe we can cut the Zuckerbergs and Schmidts of the tech world a little slack when they take the cue for how to respond to our “outrage” from how we respond to it ourselves.

In Defense of Google and Facebook