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Don’t Cry for Facebook: Privacy Is a Choice, and What’s the Alternative?

With no serious competition and lazy users, the privacy flap can’t hurt the $22B social media monster

Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement Monday that the company will simplify privacy settings sounded, on its surface, like a mea culpa from a brash billionaire beaten down by a negative publicity wave.

But in reality, it was barely audible hiccup for Facebook — a social media juggernaut with no real competition to fear and a user base that some say is better off not social networking in the first place if they’re too lazy to configure privacy settings.

“The fact of the matter often is most people don’t read terms and conditions or hit skip when they should be reading and re-reading,” said Paul Armstrong, former communications executive at MySpace and operator of the popular Media is Dying Twitter feed. “That’s their fault, not the company’s. … If you don’t like the changes, get out of Dodge. If you don’t put your information into Facebook in the first place you should be all right.”

Facebook has put on a concerned face, at least publicly. Last week, under mounting pressure from its 400-plus million users, lawmakers and assorted media critics (including Katie Couric), Zuckerberg called an emergency meeting to discuss what is becoming a PR crisis for those in the business of social media: privacy.

The pressure stems from changes Facebook – the world’s largest social network — made to its absurdly long privacy policy, making more data public by default unless users opt-out. (A 38-page complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission on May 5 by the Electronic Privacy Information Center detailed users’ concerns.) That, and Zuckerberg’s reported admission that he “doesn’t care” about your privacy, anyway.

On Monday, in a Washington Post op-ed, Zuckerberg pledged to “add privacy controls that are much simpler to use” and “an easy way to turn off all third-party” services.” (In a separate e-mail to noted tech blogger Robert Scoble, Zuckerberg put it bluntly: “We’ve made a bunch of mistakes.”)

“Sometimes we move too fast,” Zuckerberg wrote. “And after listening to recent concerns, we’re responding.”

The question is, will any of this matter to Facebook’s business in the long run?

If history is any indication, no.

“I’ve no doubt the controversy will eventually be forgotten, just like every other Facebook flap over the years,” Mashable.com’s Pete Cashmore wrote in a blog post. “Simply put, Facebook is on an unstoppable roll right now: It’s the dominant force on the social web, with Google and Twitter trailing far behind.”

That may sound hyperbolic, but — as recently as March — analysts put Facebook’s valuation in the neighborhood of, oh, $22 billion.

“For users, there’s not a viable alternative to Facebook,” Caroline McCarthy, CNET News staff writer who blogs about social media issues, told TheWrap. “That’s why they can make a change like this and still get away with it.”

Zuckerberg’s quasi-mea culpa aside, there is group going ahead with a protest (Facebookprotest.com) that urges other Facebookers to log off the site on June 6 to show the company their collective contempt for the new rules.

But that group – 3,300-plus users — is miniscule compared to the nearing half-billion people with Facebook accounts.

“Two years ago, users would’ve switched to MySpace,” McCarthy said. “As of now, there’s not a better destination.”

“I’m not sure, en masse, they have lost users’ trust,” Armstrong said. “They are a safe, sticky site that offers a lot of value to their users.  Only time will tell if the changes made really don’t resonate with users but right now — even with some protests — Facebook is growing and appears to have weathered the storm for the general public.”

Armstrong takes it a step further: he thinks the privacy onus is completely on its users. Facebook is, after all, free.

“Facebook isn’t here to make cupcakes,” he said. “It’s clear Zuckerberg and pals are here to push this as far as they can go.  So long as users keep an eye on the ball and ares sensible sharers, who could ask for more from a free service?”

But users’ personal responsibility and lack of a better option don’t make Facebook completely tarnish-proof.

“Facebook is in a far more vulnerable position, image-wise, than it was a few months ago,” McCarthy wrote in a recent post, noting a poll that said 60 percent of users had at least considered deleting their accounts in the wake of the privacy debacle.

Which is why Facebook has been on a PR push of late.

“For a service that has grown as dramatically as we have grown, that now assists with more than 400 million people sharing billions of pieces of content with their friends and the institutions they care about, we think our track record for security and safety is unrivaled,” Elliot Schrage, the company’s vice president for public policy, told the New York Times recently. “Are we perfect? Of course not.”

No one is. And the privacy problem extends well beyond Facebook.

Just last week, Google co-founder Sergey Brin admitted the search giant erred by storing private, wireless data while gathering pictures in more than 30 countries for Google Maps’ “Street View” feature. "We screwed up," Brin said at a Google developer conference in San Francisco, just as lawmakers in the U.S., Italy and Germany said they would investigate the matter. "I’m not going to make any excuses about it."

Brin’s comments come a couple months after privacy complaints bubbled up after the launch of Google Buzz — a Twitter-like feature within Gmail.

Twitter, for its part, has dealt with its share of hackers – including one that allowed users to make anyone follow them. (Twitter quickly disabled the number of followers displayed on user’s pages temporarily “while we fix a bug.”)

But the current heat is primarily on Facebook, which has more than 200 million people logging in daily.

"Our core belief is that one of the most transformational things in this generation is that there will be more information available," Zuckerberg told Time. Another core belief, if you read between Zuckerberg’s lines: users really don’t know what they want.

"The way that people think about privacy is changing a bit," he said. "What people want isn’t complete privacy. It isn’t that they want secrecy. It’s that they want control over what they share and what they don’t."