Private Parts

Facebook stock has had its troubles lately, so much so that gleeful radio commentator Sandra Tsing Loh has coined the term “plungenfreude” to describe her sentiments.

Now David Frum has weighed in with a provocative column for CNN. Frum contends that Facebook has, like so many businesses today, chosen to try to be a good investment rather than a good company. In the process, it has cut ethical corners.

Frum makes several points in the course of his argument, but we wanted to focus on one passage in particular. What’s riskiest for Facebook, in Frum’s view, is that it’s trying out a lot of questionable ways to justify a high share price.

“And as Facebook users are painfully discovering, many of those ways involve uses of customer information that some customers experience as an intrusion upon their privacy,” Frum writes. “Facebook . . . takes the view that the information customers necessarily divulge in the course of using Facebook becomes Facebook’s property to use as Facebook sees fit—unless of course the customer affirmatively opts out by ticking the correct boxes in Facebook’s notoriously confusing and repeatedly changing privacy settings.”

This brings up the question of how much customers really care. As Frum notes, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has voiced a belief (since retracted) that privacy isn’t as valued as it used to be. Frum would disagree. And so, we believe, would Peter Drucker.

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We’ve brought up Facebook and privacy before, but it’s worth considering the value of privacy in its own right. Drucker viewed privacy as essential to civilization and liberty. “The number of people who really want privacy is probably small,” he wrote in The Age of Discontinuity. “Yet in a world of powerful organizations, it is a necessary safeguard of freedom. Protection of the citizens’ privacy is one of the most important political innovations we need.”

That users of Facebook display their personal information voluntarily would be, in Drucker’s mind, beside the point. “The question should always be asked: ‘Is the knowledge about the individual necessary?’” he wrote. “If the answer is ‘no,’ it should be denied—even if the individual is perfectly willing to grant it.”

That we live in a computer age is also beside the point. “The computer memory is only the mechanical expression of the organizational fact,” Drucker explained. “Organizations operate on information, and therefore always try to gather as much as they can.”

All told, according to Drucker, preserving privacy is one of the great challenges of our time. “The line between the information the organization truly needs, which therefore is justly ‘affected with the public interest,’ and the citizen’s privacy, which is essential to his freedom, needs to be established, and reaffirmed again and again,” he concluded.

How important is privacy to you—and why?