Tech Biggies Quit Facebook Over Privacy Flap: Will Others Follow?

High-Profile Tech Personalities Delete Facebook Accounts, More Search for How to Delete Online

By KI MAE HEUSSNER

May 14, 2010—

Are you thinking about quitting Facebook? If you are, you'll likely be in good company.

As concerns over Facebook's latest privacy changes grow among users, privacy advocates and federal lawmakers, some of the technology world's highest-profile figures have chosen to publicly announce their break-ups with Facebook.

On his Twitter account today, Cory Doctorow, an author and co-editor of the popular blog BoingBoing, tweeted that he had signed off from Facebook for good.

"Never made use of #Facebook, but #privacy awfulness from#Zuckerberg has prompted me to delete acct," he wrote.

Doctorow said that even his "latent, dormant" account encouraged others to participate in a site that he said "has shown such an enormous contempt for its users' privacy."

"By removing [myself], I thought that maybe I would in a small, incremental, personal way make Facebook slightly less enticing," he said. "I didn't want to be part of the problem. "Facebook has a recurring pattern of introducing incredibly draconian and terrible privacy policies. And then making peace by adopting a slightly less terrible policy."

Some Tech Leaders Publicly Part Ways With Facebook

In his widely-followed podcast Wednesday, tech pundit Leo Laporte expressed similar concerns while deleting his personal Facebook page on air.

Laporte said he was worried about a "power grab" by Facebook, as well as its "amoral" approach to privacy.

"I realize that there's a really insidious problem here," he said. "If I use Facebook at all, as a public persona or a private person, I'm coercing either my public or my friends to use Facebook, because the only way they can interact with me is by joining Facebook and participating. So in way??? I'm coercing people I'm in relationship with to do something bad, to do something I know is fundamentally bad. I decided I do not want to be complicit in this, frankly."

Over the past couple of weeks, other tech luminaries to publicly declare their separation with Facebook include Peter Rojas, founder of the user-generated gadget site gdgt, and Matt Cutts, a well-known search engine guru at Google.

After Facebook confirmed that it held an "all hands" meeting Thursday afternoon, some tech bloggers thought it meant that the company was considering changing its privacy strategy.

But no changes have yet emerged and, in a statement, a Facebook spokesman said today: "We don't share specifics around internal meetings, but we had a productive discussion about the latest product announcements and how we can work on providing the best experiences for users and developers."

As Facebook continues to discuss, users are increasingly indicating curiosity about how to delete.

'Delete Facebook Account' Trends on Google

Over the past few days, Danny Sullivan, editor of the blog SearchEngineLand, has reported increases in people searching for "how do I delete my facebook book account" and visiting a website that provides instructions on how to accomplish this.

In a blog post Monday, Sullivan wrote that while doing a "how do I" search on Google he noticed that "how do I delete my facebook account" was one of the top suggested search topics.

This morning, the phrase "delete Facebook accounts" was among the top 10 trending searches on Google trends.

"Since our recent product introductions Facebook has grown by more than 10 million active users. There has been no change to the rate of deactivations," a Facebook spokesman told ABCNews.com.

But Sullivan said that the number of people that they've added may be 25 to 50 percent fewer than what they've added in recent months.

Based on earlier figures from Facebook, he said that the site usually reports that it gains 20 to 25 million active users each month. But since announcing the recent changes, he said Facebook is on track to only add 13 to 15 million active users per month.

He said that Facebook told him the 10 million figure was "rough" and that it may be too early to tell whether the privacy issues are having an impact on active users.

Still, Sullivan told ABCNews.com, "The numbers didn't add to a positive spin from what I see. It added up to a negative spin."

Facebook Changes Meant to Make Web More Personalized, Social

The latest backlash traces back to Facebook's developer conference a few weeks ago, when CEO Mark Zuckerberg unveiled several changes intended to make the Web more social and personalized by expanding Facebook's presence to other sites.

On thousands of sites, including ABCNews.com, a "social plug-in" now lets users "like" content and see what their Facebook friends have liked, directly from those sites.

On three sites piloting an "instant personalization" feature, a user's profile information and friend list are automatically read by the site and used to shape the user's experience.

But over the past few weeks, some of those data-sharing changes have drawn increasing attention from critics, who say Facebook needs to give its more than 400 million members more control over the personal information they disclose on the site.

"With great power comes great responsibility and sites like Facebook have great responsibility," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said at a news conference a week after Facebook's announcements. "In my view, it ought to be the user who determines who gets what information, not Facebook."

Joined by three other Democratic senators, Schumer sent a letter to Facebook, urging it to revisit the new policy and make it easier for users to control and protect their privacy.

Facebook Privacy Exec Responds to User Questions

One of their top concerns was Facebook's "opt-in" policy, which means that personal information is automatically shared with some partner Web sites unless the user goes through the process of disabling this feature.

In addition to sending a letter to Facebook, Schumer asked the Federal Trade Commission to create guidelines for Facebook and other social networks to follow.

In a letter responding to the senator, Facebook said it takes privacy very seriously and that its new products give users "unprecedented control over what information they share, when they share it and with whom."

But privacy advocates have pointed out that this is not the first time Facebook changes have triggered their concerns. In 2007, when Facebook unveiled Beacon, which tracked user behavior on other sites and shared the information on Facebook, user dissatisfaction was so strong that Facebook ultimately backpedaled and Zuckerberg apologized.

In 2009, the social network announced another set of privacy changes, which again sparked complaints from privacy advocates and Facebook users.

Charlotte Crockett, a 29-year-old Facebook user from the Netherlands, is one of more than 94,000 people to join a group called "Facebook, Respect My Privacy!" which was created by a MoveOn.org organizer and urges Facebook to reconsider its policy changes.

In an e-mail, she told ABCNews.com that even though she thinks she has a fairly good handle on the privacy settings, she said she finds them confusing and is worried for others who may not even be aware of the implications of their online sharing.

"I'm concerned for people who aren't aware of how much they are sharing. Even quite a few of my friends my own age know very little about it, let alone, for instance, my parents!" she said. "You can imagine situations where that might even put users or their contacts (if they don't realize their full friend list is public for instance) in danger. I'm thinking of political activists in countries with repressive regimes, gay people in countries where homosexuality is illegal, etc."

In a recent online Q&A with readers of the New York Times, Facebook vice president of privacy Elliot Schrage said, "It's clear that despite our efforts, we are not doing a good enough job communicating the changes that we're making. Even worse, our extensive efforts to provide users greater control over what and how they share appear to be too confusing for some of our more than 400 million users. That's not acceptable or sustainable. But it's certainly fixable. You're pointing out things we need to fix," he said. "We will soon ramp up our efforts to provide better guidance to those confused about how to control sharing and maintain privacy."