Wasting time on privacy issues

At the D10 conference, FTC Chairman Leibowitz boasted that the agency bullied Facebook into adopting an opt-in privacy policy. This is a complete waste of time and money.

I think I was the last person on the planet to hear about "D." Now in its tenth year (those in the know just call it "D10") The Wall Street Journal’s "D: All Things Digital" conference was, apparently, the place to be last week. D1 through D9 had escaped my notice, but by freak coincidence three people told me last week that they were "heading to D10," as if I was supposed to know what that meant. Luckily, with the aid of Google, I was able to reply to their emails as if I knew what I was talking about.

If aliens wanted to abduct and study a large percentage of the smartest people in the world at once, they'd grab the speakers and audience at D. The list of genius speakers is seemingly endless: Nathan Myhrvold, Larry Ellison, Mike Bloomberg, Aaron Sorkin... The audience is full of the people who give TED talks, run hedge funds and generally do better in life than most of us have done.

One of the smart people giving a talk at D10 was United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairman Jon Leibowitz. Very bright, accomplished guy. He spoke, among other things, about the FTC's achievements, for example pushing Facebook to require opt-in for privacy policy changes. Here's how it was reported:

Leibowitz pointed to a ruling on Facebook that has helped consumers. Now, when Facebook makes a privacy policy change, the company has to provide users and opt-in (not a pre-checked opt-out) before users can continue. Facebook also has to provide users with a copy of the data the social network has on them if they ask for it. Leibowitz reminded the audience that his agency is responsible for these changes.

So, here's my question:

If D10 was full of so many smart people, why didn't they all burst out laughing at that moment?

Forgive me, but Leibowitz's boast indicates to me that the FTC is an agency desperately in need of some prioritization. The FTC has an annual budget of $256.2 million, and this is how they spend it? Really, taxpayer money is being allocated to making Facebook's privacy policy changes opt-in instead of opt-out? And to what end? Facebook users will all of a sudden reconsider their use of social media and stop posting intimate, exhausting details of their lives? Advertising space on Facebook will become worth a little less money? We'll have to check yet another box in an online form we won't read?

There's a lot more to say about online privacy, but it's worth keeping one big idea in mind: Facebook is free. The millions of end users who enjoy it, and Twitter, Google services, and a million other online offerings, don't pay a penny for them. Instead, they are required to look at, or avoid looking at, advertisements. The judicious acquisition and analysis of user data is what allows these companies to sell their ad space. It's a business model that works for me, and if you're reading this it works for you too.

So, let it work.