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Author paints sympathetic portrait of Facebook founder

| Sunday, June 27, 2010

Just what is it with Mark Zuckerberg and privacy?

Maybe it's that, at 26, the Facebook founder and chief executive officer hasn't been involved in enough things that he'd rather keep to himself. Then again, he surely can't enjoy being at the center of all those constantly recycled stories about the messy origins of his multibillion-dollar empire.

Or perhaps it's that to members of his age cohort -- and calling it the Facebook Generation isn't too much of a stretch -- the concept of "privacy" seems as quaint as a rotary-dial telephone. They understand the idea, but it just isn't relevant in an always-connected world.

Whatever it is, to see Zuckerberg in action -- whether in his sweaty onstage performance at the recent D: All Things Digital conference in California, or in the pages of David Kirkpatrick's engrossing new book, "The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World" -- is to see a man who seems to believe that the burden rests on the individual to take steps to keep personal information private, not on the corporations seeking to make use of such information.

Kirkpatrick's portrayal of the young Harvard University dropout is far more sympathetic, and rings far truer, than the elusive figure in the hooded sweatshirt who dominated Ben Mezrich's "The Accidental Billionaires" (2009). Unlike Mezrich, Kirkpatrick, a former Fortune magazine journalist, had access to Zuckerberg.

The author offers a detailed and scrupulously fair history of Thefacebook, as it was then known: how Zuckerberg, already notorious on the Harvard campus for a sexually tinged website, partnered with a wealthy classmate to launch his college-based social network; how he signed up to help, and then let down, three other Harvard students working on their own social site, later spawning heated and costly litigation; and how he moved to Palo Alto, Calif., split with his business partner and was ushered into the world of big-time finance as practiced by Silicon Valley's venture-capital community.

Those capitalists quickly grasped the dazzling marketing possibilities of a site acting as the repository for so much personal data. In one of the book's most compelling scenes, Zuckerberg excused himself from a dinner with Accel Partners' Jim Breyer to discuss a lucrative investment in the company. A friend found him in the men's room, sobbing because accepting the deal would mean backing out of a commitment he had made to The Washington Post Co. and its chairman, Donald Graham.

It speaks volumes about Zuckerberg that, at 20, he called Graham directly to discuss the dilemma created by the venture-capital offer. It also says something that, in the end, he took Accel's money, not Graham's.

As Facebook explodes into a phenomenon rivaling Google for the title of most-visited website, a pattern emerges in "The Facebook Effect": Nearly every major new feature is rolled out in a way that makes member information more accessible, rather than less.

If there's an outcry, the company may scale back, but it never seems to learn the lesson for the next time. Even the release of updated privacy-control features becomes, for many users, an exercise in privacy damage control when the new defaults make more information public.

The Mark Zuckerberg of "The Facebook Effect" genuinely believes in the power of transparency to make the world a better place. He also, insists author Kirkpatrick, holds "a near-religious conviction about the importance of helping people protect their most sensitive personal data."

But he combines a firm belief in his own good intentions with a blind spot toward the sensibilities of a user base that is no longer dominated by college students and by now encompasses a sizable chunk of the global population. And that should be a giant concern to those of us who want the power to decide for ourselves what information we want to share, and how we'll let it be used.

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