Is Facebook truly sorry for its privacy sins?

Facebook's CEO has published a quasi-apology for its crimes against privacy. But Cringe still thinks he doesn't get it

Want an expert lesson in how to respond without actually responding and how to apologize without saying you're sorry? Then you need to read Facebook CEO Mark Zukerberg's quasi-mea culpa in today's Washington Post. Do it now; I'll wait.

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Zuckerberg's essay comes after more than a month of near silence as Facebook's foes piled on about the social network's rapidly evaporating privacy protections. Until today, the only official response had been from Facebook spokesmodel Eliott Schrage, who tried to deflect the bullets via a smarmy PR session in the New York Times that even Microsoft would find embarrassing.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Cringley laid out the five lessons Facebook needs to learn and warned "Facebook wants to control the Web, like it or not." | Stay up to date on all Robert X. Cringely's observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

Zucky started the ball rolling yesterday with an email he sent to blogging doyenne Robert Scoble in which he admits to making "a bunch of mistakes" recently, without detailing what those mistakes were.

In his Post piece, Zuckerberg also says Facebook "missed the mark" (if not the Mark) but failed to elaborate how, beyond admitting that users find Facebook's privacy controls hopelessly complicated.

(The snarks at eSarcasm have a NSFW version of Zuckerberg's essay; I suspect it's closer to how he really feels.)

Maybe he's just forgotten. You know those geeky 26-year-olds -- all ADD, all the time. So here's a quick recap. Since Facebook announced its intention to share users' data with third-party sites via its "instant personalization" features:

* Macworld reported that Facebook's Connect feature was secretly adding apps to users' profiles.

* Security firm Alert Logic discovered a bug that allowed Facebook users to view their friend's "private" chats.

* Last week college student/blogger Steve Abbagnaro reported a related bug that lets hackers delete someone else's Facebook friends without their permission -- a flaw Facebook claims it has fixed (but Abbagnaro begs to differ).

* The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook has been sharing some user information (including name, age, occupation, and hometown) with advertisers -- violating its own ever-mutable privacy policies -- and has continued to do despite learning about the problem nine months ago.

Facebook swatted most of these bugs, but only after they became public knowledge. One can only guess what other nasties are lurking under the hood, waiting for some blogger or journo to discover them.

The bigger issues about privacy, though, remain. And Zucky's non-apologetic non-explanation isn't helping:

We have heard the feedback. There needs to be a simpler way to control your information. In the coming weeks, we will add privacy controls that are much simpler to use. We will also give you an easy way to turn off all third-party services. We are working hard to make these changes available as soon as possible. We hope you'll be pleased with the result of our work and, as always, we'll be eager to get your feedback.

A month ago, that kind of vague response would have been acceptable. After all, they'd need time to work out the kinks of a new system, even a simpler one. (Though a handful of companies have already come out with simple ways to analyze and ratchet down your Facebook privacy settings.)

Hearing this now suggests to me that Facebook has only now just decided it needs to respond to the user uproar -- especially since the unofficial Quit Facebook Day is only a week away. It smells suspiciously like another not-entirely-sincere attempt to put out a fire Facebook itself started.

Until Zuckerberg understands what he's done wrong -- and truly believes it's wrong -- nothing will really change. Facebook will do what it's always done; roll back slightly, wait for the dust to settle, then make another grab at monetizing its 400 million-plus members' personal information down the road.

OK, Facebook fans, two questions: 1. What would make you happy? 2. When do you think Mark Zuckerberg will need to start shaving? E-mail me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This story, "Is Facebook truly sorry for its privacy sins?" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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