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The Future of .com – Less About Commerce, More About Commissions?

At yesterday’s 25 Years of .Com Policy Impact Forum, we heard lengthy remarks from former president Bill Clinton, insights from Arianna Huffington, and a panel about the Internet and privacy that highlighted how the the future of .com may be less about commerce and more about commissions – particularly the Federal Trade Commission.


Kara Swisher (D: All Things Digital) and Fred Wilson (a VC at Union Square Ventures) dug deep into online privacy issues. They railed against the supposed “privacy abuses” of online companies, particularly Google and Facebook. But it was Fred Wilson that was flippant, scattered, and skin-deep with many of his assertions—including when he accused Facebook of pulling off “the greatest privacy heist in history, and they got away with it!”


He’s referring to the changes Facebook made last December to the way users control their privacy settings (NetChoice defended Facebook’s actions on our blog). Facebook made some recommended changes based on where it sees its service going. Users (like me) could change these if they wanted. Some people complained that Facebook changed the default settings, which modified how users previously set some of their preferences.


But does changing the recommended defaults when giving users a choice constitute a “heist?” Only based on whether a user likes it or not. There certainly wasn’t any fraud or misappropriation. Or measurable consumer harm. Still, we heard from pro-regulatory privacy groups that filed a complaint urging that the FTC unleash it’s enforcement hammer.


There are legitimate debates on whether Facebook’s switch in privacy settings was clear and easy enough to understand for most users. But overblown rhetoric on privacy harms is hard to square with other concerns about data breaches, ID theft, and other misappropriations of data. And it doesn’t square with how companies need to make pivots in their business models, in their distribution, pricing and, yes, privacy policies.


Wilson’s “heist” was something he would have preferred not to happen – but that doesn’t make it one for all users.


-Braden Cox