Facebook's newest privacy mea culpa made a big splash this week. It was a belly flop, more precisely, for a company that had its last big PR moment when CEO Mark Zuckerberg met President Barack Obama, with Zuck suddenly looking serious in a suit (for real?), not a hoodie. The company quietly rolled out facial recognition technology across its site Wednesday and opted in users automatically--sending people scurrying once again to dig through Facebook's twisted labyrinth of confusing privacy check-boxes.
A friend asked me a fair question: When does it get so hard to keep a grip on this that people just give up and walk away from Facebook?
And I immediately had a follow-up question: When will Facebook stop shooting itself in the foot with enterprises?
This latest privacy snafu demonstrates that Facebook can't yet walk into the enterprise, as so many other consumer-driven technologies and services have during the past few years, and help people take charge of problems. While Facebook has influenced the look and feel of many corporate collaboration and wiki tools during the past few years, for the better, Facebook itself is not winning over those teams inside companies huddling over thorny business problems.
Why? Users just still have a bad feeling in the pit of their stomachs regarding Facebook privacy and security. Facebook still makes it too complicated to ensure that only certain people see certain data. Its privacy settings page remains notoriously detailed. Some people see this as providing lots of user control. Other people (myself included) see this and say, "Surely, the brains at Google would have simplified this process."
Can you imagine the average IT department gladly offering help with Facebook security questions? Neither can I. They shouldn't have to.
Then Facebook continues to make moves like the one this week, where people must dash to opt out of a new privacy wrinkle. (Some U.S. customers have been using the facial recognition technology since late 2010, but on Wednesday, Facebook rolled it out to everyone.)
Back in May, 2010, having faced months of privacy heat from users, Facebook's Zuckerberg wrote this in a blog post introducing an improved wave of privacy settings: "The number one thing we've heard is that there just needs to be a simpler way to control your information."
Slightly more than a year later, this facial recognition episode proves that Zuck's team hasn't quite taken that message to heart.
Despite this backdrop, many of us have become quite attached to Facebook for personal use. We have reconnected with long lost friends. We have documented our most interesting moments. We have found a seemingly easy way to make personal and professional connections stronger. (I say seemingly because I still have that nagging voice in the back of my head, asking, "How will Facebook use everything I'm writing now?")
Google built a similar affinity with many of us and we do not hesitate to walk Google Docs through the front door of the enterprise. When I started my new job here last week at InformationWeek, it did not surprise me in the least that a crucial editorial process happens inside--you guessed it--a Google Doc.
Google, to be sure, is still fighting with enterprise CIOs to prove its chops on the security and compliance front (while rival Microsoft pushes back against Google's attack using licensing costs and security fear). But consider the real progress Google has made on this front in the past few years. Facebook, on the other hand, only seems to step backward on privacy and security.
Facebook will never be able to really win over enterprise users unless it gets a grip on privacy.
Some people find the very notion of facial recognition creepy. It conjures visions of Minority Report, of terrorist watch lists, of big brother. Let's just consider face recognition inside of Facebook. One practical result of what Facebook did this week was make it more likely that Facebook friends will tag you in photos--and made it easier for friends to tag a large number of photos of you at once.
Few people find this scenario appealing. It speaks to some base fears about Facebook. That vacation you went on back in college, before any of us had heard of the Internet, much less Facebook. Facebook can now more easily suggest that your college pal, scanning in those pictures for fun, should tag you in all the photos.
The universal reaction to this scenario is at best a cringe, even if the worst that anyone will see is your 80's or 90's hairstyle. (I was recently relieved to learn via Tina Fey's new book that she and I shared the same bad 80's hairstyle. My pictures of said hairstyle shall remain locked in deep-freeze.)
You can opt out of such photo tagging of course. (See Facebook's instructions on how to opt out of the new facial recognition implications in this Facebook blog post.)
Then there's the related news: Facebook is also building a large database of user faces. What it could do with that database--how it could sell, license, and monetize it--remains to be seen.
EU privacy regulators told Bloomberg news Wednesday that they will investigate the Facebook facial recognition move and U.S. privacy watchdog group EPIC said it was considering an FTC complaint.
Facebook's painful adolescence on privacy isn't just bad news for Facebook's business. It's bad news for all enterprises, particularly those of you in the business to consumer sector, who are working hard at innovative ways to build brand loyalty with your customers via Facebook pages.
Every time Facebook ticks off a customer about privacy enough to make the person walk away, that's bad news for you.
Can you imagine how badly the people managing social media at consumer companies groan when Zuck's team pulls a stunt like the one this week? And people managing social media at B2B companies have an even harder time reaching and wooing Facebook users.
Facebook has sought out and won a seat at the table of social media innovators trying to connect with customers. If Facebook cannot prove to this smart group of people that it is ready to be a grown up company about helping its customers manage privacy in a more simple way, Zuckerberg will have a bigger problem than an embarrassing photo.
Laurianne McLaughlin is editor-in-chief for InformationWeek.com. Follow her on Twitter at @lmclaughlin.
Employees have more ways to communicate than ever, but until the mishmash of tools gets integrated, productivity will suffer. Also in the new, all-digital issue of InformationWeek: A buyer's guide to enterprise social networking. Download it now. (Free registration required.)