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As Chief Privacy Officer at Facebook, Richter has Friends (and Critics) in High Places

May 20, 2011

By Van Jensen. Reprinted from the Penn Law Journal.

Michael Richter L’93
Michael Richter L’93

Every day, Facebook’s more than 500 million users share about 1 billion posts, links and photos.
 
The torrent of information on the site— where users live, what they like, how old they are, who their friends are— gives Facebook one of the deepest wells of personal data on the Internet and is a large part of why the company is so admired by Wall Street. In January, Facebook received a $1 billion investment arranged by Goldman Sachs and was valued, some say conservatively, at $50 billion.
 
But that trove of information is a double-edged sword. It also makes Facebook a target for those who sell or otherwise exploit personal data. For instance, an October 2010 Wall Street Journal investigation revealed that third-party applications on Facebook had been accessing users’ information and transmitting it to Internet tracking companies.
 
Facebook is confronted with a paradox: Users flock to the site because it allows them to share information and photos with others, but at the same time they expect Facebook to safeguard their information.
 
The challenge of balancing those seemingly incongruous desires falls in large part on the shoulders of Facebook’s chief privacy counsel, Michael Richter L’93. Richter faces the heady tasks of keeping the company in compliance with privacy laws around the world and helping craft policies to satisfy users and regulators.

Richter, who calls himself Facebook’s privacy ombudsman, works with product managers, engineers and the management team on the development of new products. He also meets with regulators and privacy groups in advance of product launches.

“Privacy comes up in every product that we build,” said Richter, who joined the company in 2007 with limited privacy law experience. “I had to learn everything there is to know about privacy and give the company good legal advice, balancing what’s best for the company with the legal risks.”
 
Richter always has pursued assignments that he finds interesting and challenging rather than ones that offer the most impressive title. He joined Facebook after serving as head of both worldwide litigation and intellectual property at eBay. His career also has had detours into screenwriting, theater and independent film.

Challenges at Facebook came in short order for Richter when the Canadian privacy commissioner declared that the company did not meet Canada’s privacy laws. Richter worked closely with regulators to resolve the issue. The agreement is confidential, but Richter said the key was in educating the privacy commissioner on how Facebook operates.

“At the highest level, Facebook and regulators have the same goal,” he said. “We are both trying to give users control over their information. When we don’t agree, it’s usually because the regulator is trying to protect user privacy in a context where users want to share their information.”
 
Another challenge Facebook faced early in Richter’s time at the company was with its Beacon advertising program. Launched in 2007, the service automatically posted notices on users’ profiles when they interacted with third-party companies such as Blockbuster and Overstock.com. Critics argued that the system operated without explicit permission from users, and in 2008 some users filed a class action lawsuit. Facebook shuttered Beacon in 2009 and settled the lawsuit.
 
Richter called the program misunderstood. Users thought of it as a purely commercial product and not as a system to share outside information within Facebook, he said. Now, he pointed out, users share outside links and other information constantly.
 
Much of the criticism of Facebook has implied that the company seeks to exploit user information toward monetary gain. A legal scholar from the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School described Facebook’s tactics as “act now, apologize later.”

Richter disagreed with that assessment. Facebook explicitly prohibits app creators from sharing user information, he said. The company makes money through its targeted advertising program and credits purchased to use within applications. Neither of those activities provides outsiders with access to users’ personal data.

Facebook always has made privacy a top priority, Richter said. But since he started, the company has expanded the number of employees who focus specifically on that area.

“I think it gets better headlines when people criticize our approaches to privacy,” Richter said. “But the fact of the matter is that we have better privacy controls than almost any other site. … I think we do a much better job than people give us credit for.”

Much of Richter’s effort in recent years has gone into updating and revising Facebook’s privacy policy and statement of rights and responsibilities. Those came under scrutiny by the Electronic Privacy Information Center and others in 2009, which led to the revision.

Richter made two posts about the changes on the Facebook blog, each of which drew hundreds of comments. The second entry, in March 2010, revealed that all proposed changes to the policies would be posted publicly, and users could offer feedback.
 
“Ultimately it was a great experience, because we’re doing something really unique,” he said. “We give users an opportunity to vote on [changes], which I don’t think any company has ever done.”

Richter’s job also entails dealing with frequent public criticism, such as in May 2010 over what a writer on techcrunch.com called the company’s “mind bogglingly complex” privacy controls. After listening to feedback from users, Facebook introduced a new simplified privacy control that has been well received.
 
“It’s a balancing act between simplicity and granularity of controls,” Richter said. “Some users want to be able to tweak every setting for every piece of content. But to a lot of people that’s very confusing.”
 
One lesser-known privacy control that Facebook introduced is within the publisher — the field that allows users to share a status update, link, photo or video. Next to the Share button is the icon of a lock. By clicking on it, users can decide who among their friends or non-friends will be able to see what is posted.
 
Richter keeps part of his profile open to anybody, and one can learn that he was born in Miami and is a fan of both the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Clippers. Among his favorite bands are Wilco and Arcade Fire. But to understand how Richter came to Facebook, you have to dig a little deeper.
 
Richter came to Penn Law through New York City, where his parents sent him for boarding school. At the time, he’d never been to New York and didn’t know a soul there.
 
Though he’d planned to attend law school from an early age, he took a year after receiving his bachelor’s degree at Yeshiva University to explore his interest in theater and film. He acted in a play and wrote screenplays, selling one script to a producer who was also a lawyer.
 
“He convinced me the best way to get involved in the entertainment business was as a lawyer,” Richter said. “It’s really hard to get people to take a look at your [screenplay]. Law was the easiest way for someone like me without a lot of connections to work my way into the industry.”
 
Richter enrolled at Penn Law, and he quickly felt at home.
 
“[Penn] tries to foster community,” Richter said. “And the type of students they select, everyone is obviously very intelligent, but they’re well rounded and diverse.”
 
At Penn, Richter kept up his artistic interests. He directed Chicago for the Law School Light Opera Company and wrote and acted for the law revue. He recalled acting in one skit that drew laughter and applause. Afterward a deputy dean asked Richter, “What the hell are you doing in law school?”

Richter channeled his passions into working in entertainment law in New York, and eventually he became interested in Internet law. The dot-com boom had started, and Silicon Valley firms were desperate for lawyers. He and his wife, Sara, moved to California in 1999.
 
“This was the place to be,” Richter said. “This was where all of the cutting edge legal issues were happening.”
 
After working at a firm and at eBay, Richter found his way back into the arts. While at eBay, he penned a screenplay called Two Mothers. It follows two women who meet after both of their sons die in a bus bombing. Fellow alumnus Marc Posner C'85, L’92 helped him on the script.

Richter partnered with a production company he had volunteered with previously. The movie was filmed in northern California.
 
After the festival circuit, the producers plan to release the movie in a few cities and, if it’s successful, have a wider release.
 
Richter is glad to have taken the risk of making the film.

“It was a fantastic experience,” he said. “I liked being involved in the process. The story I wanted to tell was pretty much what ended up on the screen.”
 
Nevertheless, Richter was quick to say he doesn’t see film as a career. Facebook continues to offer a variety of challenges. Every day those 500 million users are posting a billion updates, and it’s up to the privacy ombudsman to look out for them.

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