Without trust, Facebook isn’t worth $100 billion

More and more Facebook users are becoming aware of how their personal information is being tracked, used and shared.

Many Facebook users are unaware of how their personal information is shared and used for profit [AP]

New York, NY –
Mark Zuckerberg has trust issues, big ones, and they could sink his extraordinary company. We all know his successes, including commanding an astonishing $104 billion for the company he built on the backs of an equally astonishing 900 million Facebook users.

But Zuckerberg has also made several missteps that raise fundamental questions about his reliability and ultimate intent. The miscalculations are serious enough that they threaten permanent damage to Facebook’s relationships with users – and, ultimately, to its advertisers, investors and brand.

Inside Story Americas – Is your online personal data up for sale?

Once-latent concerns over privacy, power and profit have now led both domestic and international regulatory bodies to scrutinise the company more closely, while Zuckerberg argues we are living in a new era, beyond privacy. Although he once believed privacy control to be “the vector around which Facebook operates” (as he told Marshall Kirkpatrick in a March 2008 interview), Zuckerberg now says the network reflects a society moving away from its earlier emphasis on privacy – and adds that, were he to create Facebook again, user information would be public by default.

Could this new philosophy have been created, not because our “social norm” has shifted, but for more crass and convenient reasons: commerce and control over the future of the web? It’s certainly working so far, to the tune of billions of dollars, but in the process of empire building, Zuckerberg has ignored the growing population of users who suspect Facebook simply cannot be trusted.

Losing the trust of your audience is the first step in losing your audience itself – and eventually the power of your brand. Facebook executives have repeatedly made sudden, ill conceived and poorly communicated policy changes that made our once-private personal information instantly and publicly accessible. This pattern has now led both domestic and international regulatory agencies to examine the company’s practices and policies more closely – and to find them wanting.

Dominance to downfall

A recent settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, for example, led to a stipulation that Facebook would stop making any further deceptive claims, obtain consumers’ approval before changing the way it shares their data and undergo independent third-party auditing for decades.

But shortly after the uproar subsided, renewed blunders over privacy and trust began again to shake the brand. The latest centred on Facebook’s admission that it continues to track the web pages members visit after they have logged out of the Facebook site. Executives said the privacy breach was simply a mistake, that software automatically downloaded to users’ computers when they logged in to Facebook inadvertently sent tracking information back to the company.

“Does the owner of the network own our data as well? If he and his investors profit mightily from selling it, shouldn’t we at least be asked politely for permission first?

True, Facebook’s growth has yet to be slowed by such episodes. But so far neither Zuckerberg nor the markets seem overly concerned. Considering the low number of Facebook defectors versus the onrush of new users, such confidence may not be misplaced. But the terms of the unspoken deal we make with social media – the exchange of our personal information for free tools and platforms to share it on – have yet to be agreed upon.

It’s very early days. If we choose to share data on a network with our friends and followers, must we necessarily cease to control it? Does the owner of the network own our data as well? If they and their investors profit mightily from selling it, shouldn’t we at least be asked politely for permission first? Maybe we would share even more if we were paid a small commission.

Trust is “the new black”, as Craiglist’s founder Craig Newmark noted in a 2010 blog post: “By the end of this decade, power and influence will shift largely to those people with the best reputations and trust networks, from people with money and nominal power.” Trust is also essential for the success of any brand – in fact, it defines a brand. As our Facebook profile pages begin to morph into our overall online identities, the inherent tension between our individual desire to protect personal information and the company’s need for that information to prosper will come into ever-sharper focus. We will need to trust more, not less.

Despite Zuckerberg’s loudly trumpeted beliefs, Facebook’s tremendous success to date does not signify that the company has earned any right to own or define our very identities. And, in seizing that right, Facebook risks losing everything – its credibility, the trust of its even its most ardent users, its value to advertisers and ultimately its brand.

Even as it battles for control of the web, Facebook is simultaneously set to stumble over the question of trust and reliability. Unless altered, Mark Zuckerberg’s blind ambition and inability to listen to his many friends and followers may lead not to dominance, but to downfall.

Rory O’Connor is the author of Friends, Followers and The Future: How Social Media are Changing Politics, Threatening Big Brands and Killing Traditional Media.