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A valuable lesson from Randi Zuckerberg: Online privacy is complicated

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It’s become almost axiomatic that Facebook privacy settings are so complicated even relatively savvy users get tripped up by them, especially since the giant social network has a reputation for changing them without warning, resetting defaults, and so on. In a deliciously ironic illustration of this phenomenon, Randi Zuckerberg — sister of Facebook (s fb) co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg — was caught in a privacy snafu on Christmas Day when one of her family photos was shared publicly. But there’s a larger point behind all the schadenfreude, and it’s about more than just Facebook being evil: online privacy is complicated, and inventing new software settings isn’t really going to help.

As detailed by BuzzFeed, the problem started late Christmas evening, when Vox Media staffer Callie Schweitzer shared a funny photo on Twitter of the Zuckerberg family using the social network’s new Poke feature — an app that allows users to send messages or photos that self-destruct after a certain amount of time (a feature that itself can be seen as a response to privacy concerns). Randi Zuckerberg saw the photo because she was mentioned in the tweet, which has since been deleted, and told Schweitzer that sharing it publicly on Twitter was “way uncool.”

Randi Zuckerberg tweet

Schweitzer apologized, and said she believed the picture was public because it showed up in her feed, and that she sees Zuckerberg’s updates because she signed up for them via Facebook’s Twitter-style “subscribe” feature. After some back-and-forth, Zuckerberg determined that the Vox staffer saw the photo because she is connected to a mutual friend — a friend who tagged Zuckerberg in the photo, and thereby shared it with her entire social graph. Zuckerberg then shared what she felt was the lesson we should all take from this incident, namely: “always ask permission before posting a friend’s photo publicly.”

It would be nice if figuring out online privacy was that simple, but it isn’t — not by a long shot. And it’s not just Facebook, although it is the most obvious example of this problem, if only because it is so massive that virtually everyone is either using it or knows someone who is. It’s tempting to think of this as just another sign of how Facebook is an evil social overlord, deliberately tweaking privacy settings so that it can sell our private details to the highest bidder, but that’s a little too facile.

Privacy becomes infinitely more complex online

The reality is that privacy issues we normally take for granted in the “real” world become almost infinitely more complicated when we move online: if Randi Zuckerberg had taken a physical photo of her family, she could only have shared it with a small group of people — and by definition, those people would be close to her and her family, and so privacy wouldn’t be a problem. But when anyone can “tag” a photo and instantly re-share that photo to an audience of thousands, things get complicated really quickly.


Should Randi have asked before she shared that picture on Facebook? Maybe. But she (perhaps naively) trusted that it would only be seen by close friends and family — not thinking of how a friend’s decision to tag it could affect where and with whom it was shared. Should her friend have asked before she tagged it? Perhaps. I tagged a friend once in a photo and she got upset with me because she didn’t want people to know where she was — not because she was doing anything bad, but because she didn’t like the feeling of being tracked. That never even occurred to me until she mentioned it.

To be fair to Facebook, figuring these kinds of nuances out isn’t easy — and implementing them in the form of software controls isn’t either. Facebook has gotten a lot of flak (much of it from Google) for not allowing people to download the emails of their friends, but it has always argued that those emails belong to your friends, and sharing them should be their choice, not yours. We may disagree, but there are good arguments on either side (Facebook now lets you do this but only if your friend specifically allows it).

There are all kinds of things we need to learn — or re-learn — when it comes to online behavior, and how to handle privacy is one of them. It’s easy to throw rocks at Facebook or make fun of Randi Zuckerberg, but the bigger issue is not going away: if anything, it is getting even more complicated.

29 Responses to “A valuable lesson from Randi Zuckerberg: Online privacy is complicated”

  1. I guess this is the reality that bites! Facebook have zero privacy! on the other hand, if you want privacy don’t post it online anywhere to keep it private or if you really want to share – email it to who ever you want to share it with….

    I guess Randy felt like us.

  2. kikegitaa

    I’m totally in disagreement over Facebook’s requiring permission to download another’s email once it is sent to the person “intended..”
    Once someone sends you a letter ,it and its contents are yours to do with what you want. If anything, there should be a contract or “setting” where people who exchange info on FB (generally or specifically) agree between “themselves” what can or cannot be distributed, tagged, etc. If the agreement is violated, then the party has the option to “unfriend” or cutoff that relationship.
    We’re adults here, Zuckerberg. There are some things we are more than capable of working out for ourselves

  3. This supports that Facebook’s privacy settings are confusing even to those who should be most familiar with them. How can Facebook expect the average user to understand how private their status’, photos and other content is?

    Facebook has faced too many privacy issues this year that have had a cumulative effect on their brand trust. 2013 is likely the year that they have to make some tough decisions in order to keep users, brands and investors happy.

  4. Kathy E Gill

    Mathew – then there’s the niggle (well, I think that it’s more than a niggle) that Randi deleted all of her Twitter conversation with Callie. THEN she dropped the bomb “be polite” bomb.

    But here’s where my mind went at the start of this story, because I’m old, jaded and cynical:

    “Took me a few days to download FB’s Poke App, but one thing’s for sure. I no longer need to be convinced of the value of ephemeral posts! ;)”

    • Kathy E Gill

      * Argh. Y’all embed the tweet on URL include … and have no edit comment option. :-)

      ONE more thing. When you are a public figure (like Randi is due to her past position at Facebook and being Mark’s sister) I think your expectation of privacy should be different — just as a defamation/libel case has a different threshold for public figures.

      And Google’s not-initially-baked-in-but-demanded-by-customers prevention of making “non-public” posts “public” would not have helped in this case as Callie copied the photo in order to post it on Twitter. The proper (IMO) thing to do would have been to share the FB status/photo. Callie would have quickly seen that the photo was not public.

  5. “Wait, you mean if I post something on the internet it might be seen by people I didn’t want to see it.” Easy mistake, how was she supposed to know this about the internet. It’s not like she knows anyone that deals with technology.

  6. Julie Gallaher

    The lesson is that nothing shared electronically is ever private. Whether email, text or status update, it’s just too easy for someone to share. Haven’t we already learned this?

  7. Why do people continue to post details about their private lives on a public website and complain when people in the public see their private details?

    Here’s a tip: keep your private stuff “private”; it’s right there in the definition of the word “private”

  8. Matthew- you seem to be going out of your way to make this seem like it is not a Facebook problem- when it actually is. If the sister of the architect of Facebook can’t figure out how to post a picture that she wants to show to just a few people without said photo ending up all over the place- then how am I supposed to figure it out. As it is, the policy changes several times a year. This is a good post and all, but please, stop trying so hard not to “attack” Facebook and just call it as it is.

  9. Jen Nifer

    “Always ask permission before posting a friend’s photo publicly.” – what?? I couldn’t disagree witht his more! How about don’t post what you don’t what shared online in the 1st place? Posting something online means that you no longer expect privacy, even if you share it privately on Twitter, Instagram, etc. Nothing is private when you post online.. period!

    • Exactly right, Jeavonna! If you don’t want it shared, then don’t put it on Facebook!!! That’s all the privacy that should be needed. It’s somewhat similar to the advice that “if you don’t want your mom to find out what you’re doing, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it.”

      If one really feels the need to share something on FB that they don’t want shared to others, then it’s their job to put that in their update – “please don’t share this.” It is not incumbent upon me to ask them if I can share something once it showed up in my feed.