Facebook's Zuckerberg re-ignites privacy brouhaha

CEO of Facebook pokes the bear with comments about privacy at All Things Digital confab

The folks at Facebook just might be wishing today that CEO Mark Zuckerberg just hadn't ... well, said anything about privacy yesterday at the Wall Street Journal 's All Things Digital conference.

Facebook users and critics seemed to be fairly appeased last week after the popular social networking firm released new, simplified privacy controls .

After a Q&A onstage at the conference yesterday, however, Zuckerberg appears to have stirred up the privacy pot once again.

According to multiple reports from bloggers, journalists and Twitterers, Facebook's CEO sidestepped questions about facebook privacy rather than giving the audience real, thoughtful answers.

"My God, Zuckerberg is literally dissolving in a lake of his own sweat," live-blogged John Paczkowski on the All Things Digital Web site. "He is visibly flushed, and you can see the beads of sweat rolling down his face. Could this be his Nixon moment?"

Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group, said Zuckerberg performance could prove damaging to Facebook.

"Zuckerberg doesn't seem to be helping Facebook with his latest statements concerning privacy," added Olds. "While some of the recent Facebook changes have helped users find and better control their data, Facebook's default settings tend to give users less, rather than more, privacy. When asked about this, he didn't directly address the policy. I took his answer to mean that he thinks the Facebook model works best when people share more. While this is certainly true for Facebook, it ain't necessarily the case for users who want to keep their private data, well, private."

Facebook users were quick to vent their frustrations about Zuckerberg's comments on Twitter.

"OK, I'm not sure what button I hit on Facebook's privacy settings, but I just found Mark Zuckerberg in my home going through my photo albums," wrote timcarvell. And Jason tweeted: "Zuckerberg had a Nixon moment tonight. People at conference are talking about the most insane meltdown ever."

Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, said he's surprised that Zuckerberg went to the conference apparently unprepared for predictably tough questions about privacy.

"The issue is one of trust," said Gottheil. "If users' concerns are heightened, and they don't trust that the company understands their concerns, that increases their worries. I think [Zuckerberg] could have handled it better, but he was in a difficult position. First, his company has not done well in the past. Second, he has an embarrassing back story. And third, there's a real trade-off between protecting and monetizing people's information."

Gottheil also said Zuckerberg's presentation came off as though the company is simply waiting for this privacy brouhaha to pass.

"I don't think they've quite come to terms with the need for strong privacy defaults and opt-outs," added Gottheil. "They're hoping this kerfuffle will pass, and they can continue their old pattern of passively encouraging users to keep their privacy settings weak."

Facebook has been knocked about recently because of user concerns that the social networking firm is playing fast and loose with user information. Criticism mounted significantly last month after Facebook unveiled a bevy of tools that allow user information to be shared with other Web sites.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld . Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin , or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com .

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