Facebook’s identity opportunity – or somebody’s

Facebook has the chance to turn a problem — negative publicity about its latest privacy shifts and confusion about how to control them — into a business opportunity: It could become the protector of your identity instead of a threat to it. That’s a service we need.

Imagine if Facebook started a new and independent arm to take your side in any question about identity and privacy on Facebook — the ID equivalent of Google’s Data Liberation Front. This group’s job would be to simplify all the obfuscation that is confusing every Facebook user I know about how and where their data will be used and shared: create simple tools with simple rules and explanations and execute our wishes for us. That alone would help Facebook’s relationship with us today. If Facebook wants us to trust our identities to Facebook, then it better take that mission seriously.

Now imagine that Facebook does such a good job of that — turning its rumbling PR problem into a new asset — that we ask it to bring this service elsewhere on the web, helping us determine and decide what’s shared about me on the internet: what I share about me, what others share about me, what others can see of me, and how I can manage that.

I see a new identity dashboard over the web that lets me see how I’m seen and then adjust and publish as I choose — not just shutting down (which is what happens when people get overwhelmed with privacy control issues — even Leo Laporte is doing that) but also deciding what we want to make public (because I argue there is value in publicness).

Mind you, I am not publishing all the things that add up to me through Facebook, nor will I ever. I publish my identity every day all over the web; that is what Facebook should help me manage. Identity is distributed. So, as I argued here, I should control this on my own but I need help managing it. Current tools — ClaimID and such — are as difficult to use as Facebook’s privacy control and are ineffective.

There’s also a service waiting to happen to verify identity. Twitter does that for celebs; why not for all of us?

Facebook could do all this. Because it already has the tightest link to our identities online, it should do this. I’d argue it should do this to turn its relationship with us and our identities on its axis: rather than being accused of exploiting our identities, it should regain our trust — and value — by becoming our best protector, our ID agent.

Google could also do that. This might be a way for it to leapfrog Facebook in the identity and social front: help us organize not the world’s information but our information. The Google profile page becomes not something that lives on Google but something Google enables us to manage.

Even the Post Office could do this. Way back when, it proposed becoming an identity verification service. I know from my little bit of work with folks in the area that the USPS is certainly looking for new ways to bring value (read: new reasons to exist).

Startups could do this. As I tell my entrepreneurial students, whenever you see a problem, look for the opportunity in it. In all the yammering and schwitzing about Facebook and privacy and identity, it’s easy to see a big need and opportunity. Facebook should see it; others can, too.

  • Michael

    Unfortunately, Facebook’s motto isn’t “Do No Evil” and Harvard doesn’t necessarily impart valuable ethical values to all its students.

    • kejia

      Especially Harvard students who steal a business idea from other Harvard students!

      • Eric

        Especially, former Harvard Students who facilitate identity theft of his patrons by reckless privacy practices, negligence, and depraved indeifference to facebook users.

  • The problem is that I don’t trust Facebook anymore. They could do whatever they want – first they need to get back my (and possibly some other user’s) trust. That’s the hard part.

    • That’s the real issue for them now, eh? I don’t think it’s too late to regain trust.

      • Trust is the key issue. If Facebook were to choose an ‘opt-in’ rather than ‘opt-out’ implementation strategy they might be making a small, but positive, step in the right direction.

      • Eric

        I agree.

        If Zuckerberg and every manager including all the C-level officers are terminated without severence completly from Facebook and the site complety rebooted (remember Napster?), this will go a long way towards the reconciliation process.

        Recommended reading: http://gizmodo.com/5530178/top-ten-reasons-you-should-quit-facebook

  • Identity verifiers are certainly needed and you mentioned the Post office but what about banks? They have to undertake quite thorough ‘Know Your Customer’ checks to avoid fraud and to meet other regulatory requirements. Should they get into the digital ID business? I know one bank that is involved with this via the Gov 2.0 initiatives is Citi maybe more should get involved. http://openid.net/2009/09/09/yahoo-paypal-google-equifax-aol-verisign-acxiom-citi-privo-wave-systems-pilot-open-identity-for-open-government-2/

  • One of the problems with losing trust is that problems start to get blown out of proportion. To wit:

    – Has anyone actually gone in and looked at Facebook’s privacy settings? They’re not winning any awards anytime soon, but they’re not exactly written in Sanscrit. Anyone who wants to control their Facebook privacy should have no trouble doing so.

    – We really should stop defining the act of connecting people to each other as “exploiting our online identities.” That’s Facebook’s purpose, after all. If they added a new feature and set the default to “off,” the new feature would almost certainly fail, as no one would notice a difference.

    • Schuyler

      Currently, there is data in your profile that is published freely to third parties that you do not have access to. You can verify this by clearing out your profile data and then using a tool such as this: http://givememydata.com. Not only does Facebook have an ethics problem, they have a competency problem.

  • I think Mr. Jarvis is right on target. A lot of people need help managing their identities online. If Facebook sees this post (I would hope so) and takes it to heart I believe they are perfectly positioned to grab the space.

    Myself I only publish what I do not mind is possibly available to the world. The larger concern to me is the identities of my contacts and friends both on and off Facebook. I do not want any of their information spread due to my actions.

    The next hurdle: How do we keep the spammers away from the information?

  • i’m a technophile… like all the people who post here… i know how to manage and protect my identity… but the new “no privacy settings” facebook has recently instituted basically put me at the mercy of the harried moms who were my friends on facebook…

    any mention of “go reset your privacy” makes them pull out their hair … they don’t have time to think … much less waste time resetting facebook every week…

    so i closed my facebook… its pointless now…

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  • Ike

    Jeff, considering the sheer amount of automation Facebook has relied upon for some of these recent conversions, do you think they can really scale to do verifications?


    I work for a subsidiary of a company in the Fortune top-200, and the transfer of “likes and interests” into “Community” pages has ended up creating duplicate pages.

    I have asked to help “shepherd” those pages in the future, when Facebook is good and ready. But how do I know if I got all of them? And how do we prevent the damage when those who want to harm my brand get the chance to weigh in instead?

    And how many people who “Liked” my company, and click to the “Community” will have the erroneous impression that we had a lick to do with the aggregated content they see? And how much frustration will there be that we aren’t engaging through a page where there is semantic understanding of interaction, but we have zero control?

    If Beacon was the action of a seven-year-old caught shoplifting gum, then Community Pages are the carnage of an infant orangutan who doesn’t know his own strength.

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  • Jeff, your post about Facebook privacy has been two minutes of blather. Facebook has mutated into something that is beyond comment. It’s time to let Facebook die from it’s own cancer. People will always drink the Jones town koolaid or follow Heaven’s Gate. So why should Facebook be any different?

  • There is already a company that handles identity verification. I’ve said it before, I’m saying it again: Nixle.

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  • The UK has had a solution for several years with Garlik DataPatrol (http://www.garlik.com/). Taps into all the open databases, credit records, electoral role, etc, etc. Don’t know what its market penetration is but given I’m still using it for free at least three years down the line I’m guessing not great. Although I was in the first tranche when they opened so maybe I have some kind of free run forever deal going on.

    On a more thoughtful front and we use the ‘internet as place’ paradigm then surely we need two distinct tiers of identity verification; one for use only for actions within the borders of internet, and one that allows cross-border activity. We need a face equivalent (our community presence) and we need a document equivalent (our ‘official’ avatar).

    They have their own distinct needs and technical challenges and the cross-border one is overkill for everyday stuff like dropping ideas on comments boards. After all who actually digitally signs their correspondence ?. But they are both worth having.

  • Surely it’s very easy to verify who someone is online? My online bank can do it, I file my tax returns online, Ebay and Paypal know who I am.

    Facebook has seemed to overlook karma as a bankable asset. I feel they’re constantly doing things to be sneaky and undermine be rather than help me. I feel Google is there to make money off me but also help me and improve my online experience. I feel exposed and commoditized by Facebook.

    The scary thing is that you have to be among the very tech-savvy to even get your head around Facebook’s privacy and what it means to you. Your average high schooler has no idea how exposed they are by Facebook.

    Facebook profiles should be open, they shouldn’t need a login. I should have a good idea of what data I’m displaying publicly. This shouldn’t be hidden away in the inner circles of the privacy settings.

    The more they expland the more I’m sick of their blue and white world. At least Google has a sense of humour and a bit of colour.

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  • I think you are right on, Jeff – especially about the need for Facebook verification. I’m still dreaming of the day when I’m famous enough to need to verify my Twitter account.

    Like you said, Facebook has a chance to do something great here. I just hope they focus on it instead of on Farmville.

  • “Confused about your privacy settings? Call 1-900-Facebook – call to get in touch with a facebook representative about your account today. Only $1.99/minute or 15 farmville coins.”

    Seriosuly though, great post. Am sure Zuckerberg will read and shape up.

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  • Tory

    I’ve been using Verisign Labs Personal Identity Portal for a couple of years now. It seems like they’ve been imagining something exactly like what you’re asking for. Unfortunately, it seems like a small project and not something Verisign is really pushing. It’s a perfect company to take on such a project though.

    Check it out:

  • I am highly surprised that the big privacy issue raised by the new Like button did not raise more rants: Facebook can now identify the name of the user behind each impression of a “Like-equipped” page and doesn’t even share back with the site owner

    All details at http://media-tech.blogspot.com/2010/05/social-plug-ins-and-like-button-insane.html

  • I just believe facebook is shooting themselves in the foot. Eventually they will become yesterdays news when someone comes out with a new platform.

  • Thinking along the exact same lines as you. Facebook is treading on a slippery slope, but they should definitely change the experience to enable users to control their identity. Funny thing, the way users control data is also interesting market research data.

  • I’m worried about putting any company in charge of my online identity. Any time we treat someone else’s organization as infrastructure, we’re endangering our own valuable resources — whether that’s our data, our content or our online identity. Been blogging about it: http://bit.ly/c8F6tD

  • First, Facebook would have to obey Kim Cameron’s Seven Laws of Identity: http://www.identityblog.com/?p=352/#lawsofiden_topic3

    Second, if they do this intelligently, they can be what we call a Fourth Party: one that sides with, and makes money from, individual customers: http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/vrm/2009/04/12/vrm-and-the-four-party-system/

    Third, if they head where they’re going, they’ll be another object lesson for future giants risking failure to learning from prior ones: http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/doc/2010/04/25/the-teachings-of-failure/

  • Sarah M.

    There is a new service called Trulioo, at http://www.trulioo.com that does exactly what you are talking about. Its simple, but looks like the first wave of ID Management products facilitated by FB and other SN sites.

    I am a Match.com user, and I found this service when I was trying to do background checks on potential dates.

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  • Jeff,

    With regards to your comment “There’s also a service waiting to happen to verify identity. Twitter does that for celebs; why not for all of us?”

    This is available now as a free app on FB. The UI will be significantly revised (improved) as soon as FB finished their “invite” API call.

    I’d be grateful if you would have a look and let me know what you think.


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