Mark Zuckerberg Says Privacy Is for the Rich

3 minute read
| The Back Page

So it turns out privacy is a luxury only the rich can afford. For the poors, being the product is their lot in life if they want cool tech stuff, and all this claptrap about companies not selling you is “glib” elitist nonsense. At least that’s how I’m reading Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s comments on the subject.

In a Vox interview, Ezra Klein asked Mr. Zuckerberg about Apple CEO Tim Cook’s assertion that he would never be in Mark Zuckerberg’s shoes when it came to privacy. Mr. Cook was surely blunt when he said “I wouldn’t be in this situation,” and Mr. Zuckerberg was probably right to take personal affront.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

His answer to Ezra Klein, however, only dug the hole deeper, at least to me. While a lot of coverage on this interview has focused on the idea that Mr. Zuckerberg was taking his own dig at Tim Cook, it was the subtext that raised my hackles. Let’s go to the tape (emphasis added).

Mark Zuckerberg comments to Vox

You know, I find that argument, that if you’re not paying that somehow we can’t care about you, to be extremely glib and not at all aligned with the truth. The reality here is that if you want to build a service that helps connect everyone in the world, then there are a lot of people who can’t afford to pay. And therefore, as with a lot of media, having an advertising-supported model is the only rational model that can support building this service to reach people.

That doesn’t mean that we’re not primarily focused on serving people. I think probably to the dissatisfaction of our sales team here, I make all of our decisions based on what’s going to matter to our community and focus much less on the advertising side of the business.

But if you want to build a service which is not just serving rich people, then you need to have something that people can afford. I thought Jeff Bezos had an excellent saying on this in one of his Kindle launches a number of years back. He said, “There are companies that work hard to charge you more, and there are companies that work hard to charge you less.” And at Facebook, we are squarely in the camp of the companies that work hard to charge you less and provide a free service that everyone can use.

I don’t think at all that that means that we don’t care about people. To the contrary, I think it’s important that we don’t all get Stockholm syndrome and let the companies that work hard to charge you more convince you that they actually care more about you. Because that sounds ridiculous to me.

Man Who Shoe Fits Says What?

I mean, seriously. Stockholm syndrome? Those are mighty big words for a man whose platform has been (and may still be being) used by propagandists like Russia for disrupting elections and undermining democracy in the West. I also learned in this Vox piece that racists in Myanmar have been using Facebook to spread anti-Rohingya propaganda. And don’t even get me started on Mr. Zuckerberg’s decision to perform psychology experiments on Facebook users without their knowledge or permission.

So, please, Mr. Zuckerberg, spare me your pious bleating.

What Price Our Privacy?

There’s so much I disagree with in Mr. Zuckerberg’s comments, but there is a kernel of truth buried deep inside his defensiveness. Apple’s products are expensive compared to most of its hardware competition. Apple’s products are largely affordable by more affluent users, and they are frankly not in reach of vast numbers of the planet’s poor.

But to say the only other option is advertising-supported services that make the user the product is intellectually lazy. The truth is that making users the product is the fastest way to grow. Humans love “free,” especially when they are unaware of the true costs of that free service. But that’s not to say that there’s no room for other models servicing lower income demographics. More specifically, being ad supported doesn’t mean you have trade on our lives the way Facebook (and Google) does.

You may have to be that mercenary about your users if you want to be valued in the hundreds of billions in next to no time, but that’s not the same as it being the only way to be ad-supported or that it’s the only way to connect people.

The more I learn about Facebook and Mr. Zuckerberg, the more I come back to this: Mark Zuckerberg was too young to have learned the difference between what he could do and what he should do when Facebook exploded. All of the controversies that have beset Facebook in the last few years appear to stem from that basic question. Yes, we can do this, but should we?

Too often the answer to that basic question has been “No, we should not do this,” but Facebook did it anyway.

10 Comments Add a comment

  1. furbies

    There’s so much I disagree with in Mr. Zuckerberg’s comments, but there is a kernel of truth buried deep inside his defensiveness. Apple’s products are expensive compared to most of its hardware competition. Apple’s products are largely affordable by more affluent users, and they are frankly not in reach of vast numbers of the planet’s poor.

    Granted, those of us who are less effluent* can’t often afford the latest, greatest, or shiniest WonderTech to come out of Cupertino, but we can, and do save all our pennies, and manage to stay in the Walled Garden as much as possible.

    Put another way, not being affluent, does not automatically lead to the notion that we should be the product !

    *Australian joke: reference a TV show called Kath & Kim. See http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2aexyi

  2. Av8tress

    Maybe I need to buy a “fresh” laptop, a burner phone, several gift cards from different stores & get a new email address. This way, I’ll be able to shop anonymously as long as I pick up the items in the store myself.

    My digital footprint will be nice and small if not invisible and I can forget about FB all together since people want me to know details about them I think is a true waste of time.

    We too have our ways even though we’re not inside the Walled Garden as well . . .

  3. eolake

    Bryan, while I largely share your feelings about Facebook, I can’t actually see that this is what Zuckiberg is saying.

    • John Kheit

      Wha he is saying is “wwwwaaaaaaahhhhhh people are being mean to me, that’s not fair. Look over there. Apple is rich. People hate the rich. Hhhhhhhaaaannng the rich. Look at the funny monkey.”

      Classic panic’d Chewbacca defense.

      More to the point, what he couldn’t say was “we protect your privacy” because they exploit it.

      What he should have said is “f you all, you’re all constantly screaming ‘looooooook at meeeeeeeeeeee world’ and then surprised stuff you said is available to everyone. The problem is you’re either stupid or full of it. I’m the devil you knew and know, and don’t cry crocodile tears of ‘privacy’ after making a deal with the devil. FU”

      Would have respected him more for being honest than being a craven hustler pussy instead.

      • eolake

        Thanks, John.
        It’s not that kind of world, is it? 🙂
        I’d like to see what would happen if any major founder said something like that.

        … But now you made think more about it, it is actually interesting that Z in reply to this problem does not defend their privacy stance, but instead defends ad-supported services… How is that even relevant? What he i saying seems to be: “you can’t use ad-supported services and still retain privacy”.

        I am actually astounded at the number of people who faithfully follows Facebook’s rule and use their full and real name!
        I once had a Russian dude copy and publish a huge part of my membership web site. My lawyer found him on a Russian Facebook ripoff. I said to him “social media is a boon for investigators, aren’t they?” He said “you have no idea.”

  4. skipaq

    Isn’t Zuckerberg‘s position a canard? How many of the world’s truly poor have access to the internet, let alone use Facebook? How is he giving them free services? It is likely that the vast majority of people who use Facebook are using some personal computer or device that the truly poor cannot afford. It is also likely that a monthly internet bill is not in their budget. How exactly is he providing free services to these people.

    It is more likely people using Macs, PCs, iPhones or Android phones that use Facebook. They are doing so using internet and cell services that are more expensive than the devices themselves. He is selling them or should we say the relatively wealthy. Those are the people that advertisers pay Facebook to reach because they have disposable income to buy what they are trying to sell.

    If Zuckerberg wants to be altruistic the he should provide free internet service and free devices for those who truly cannot afford either. They probably still wouldn’t have much time for such things while struggling daily for their next meal.

  5. MalcolmTucker

    I always enjoy reading Zuckerburg’s responses.

    They always seem to follow a formula- first agree-to-disagree-then-circular non-answer. Makes you wonder about what his childhood was like.

    Either way, Zuckerberg likes cash, and rich people can afford to buy three neighbors’ homes and bulldoze them for the pool and servants quarters.

  6. archimedes

    Zuckerberg’s comment makes no sense. Lots of companies sell cheap computers and phones without violating your privacy.

    The reason Tim Cook’s argument makes sense is that Apple’s primary business – selling hardware like Macs, iPads, and iPhones – doesn’t depend on selling ads or violating your privacy. In contrast, companies like Google and Facebook are primarily advertising companies, and respecting your privacy doesn’t align with their business interests.

    However, I do note that “free” can drive some pernicious monetization behavior even on Apple platforms; for example, many “free” apps on the iOS app store are optimized using dodgy psychological approaches (such as slot-machine mechanics) to encourage users to pay more money than they would if the app or game had an up-front cost, while others use advertising from various companies that don’t necessarily respect your privacy.

    Apple is also moving more towards services like Apple Music and iTunes streaming, both of which rely on recommendation systems that track what you listen to and what you watch, although Apple doesn’t need to sell that data to others and would probably alienate people if it did.

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