Power Players

19-year-old Mark Zuckerberg: 'Issues about violating people's privacy don't seem to be surmountable'

Mark Zuckerberg (L) and Chris Hughes (R) creaters 'Facebook' photographed at Eliot House at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. on May 14, 2004.
Rick Friedman | Corbis | Getty Images

Privacy concerns are a constant for Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. Even as Zuckerberg testified before Congress about Facebook's cryptocurrency Libra on Wednesday, the CEO was asked about Facebook's privacy violations.

In light of what has unfolded over the last several years, including Facebook's Cambridge Analytica data scandal, comments Zuckerberg made about user privacy as a 19-year-old Harvard student seem ironic today.

In 2003, before Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard to start Facebook, he created a site called Facemash; at the time, The Harvard Crimson described it as a "popular Harvard version of the Am I Hot or Not? website."

After Harvard's computer services department complained about the site, Zuckerberg was brought before Harvard's Administrative Board, accused of violating individual privacy, breaching security and violating copyrights with Facemash.

Zuckerberg chose to shut down the site because he didn't see a good way around the issues.

"Issues about violating people's privacy don't seem to be surmountable," Zuckerberg told the Crimson about Facemash in an issue published in November 2003.

"I'm not willing to risk insulting anyone," said a teenage Zuckerberg.

The Crimson article was recently resurfaced by Bloomberg's Sarah Frier after Zuckerberg gave a speech at Georgetown University on Oct. 17. The speech defended Facebook's stance on "freedom of expression," including its decision not to ban or fact check political advertising on the site. (Frier referenced The Harvard Crimson story to make a point about Facebook's origin.)

Despite a young Zuckerberg's privacy concerns with Facemash (an admittedly small and short-lived operation), he of course went on to launch Facebook on Feb. 4, 2004, with co-founders Chris Hughes, Dustin Moskovitz and Eduardo Saverin.

Sarah Frier tweet

Today, at 35, Zuckerberg and is worth $68 billion. Facebook has almost 40,000 full-time employees and more than 2.4 billion monthly active users across Facebook and its properties Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger in the second quarter of 2019.

In July, Facebook paid a $5 billion fine to consumer protection agency, the Federal Trade Commission, to settle a privacy violation claim.

The FTC began investigating Facebook in March 2018 after allegations that the data of 87 million Facebook users were accessed by the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, violating a user agreement requiring Facebook to give users clear notifications when their data was shared with third parties.

Mark Zuckerberg's 2004 CNBC interview shows how far he and Facebook have come

In March, Zuckerberg posted a manifesto outlining the future of social media, focused on private interactions. He acknowledged Facebook's own reputation on privacy.

While "public social networks" will still be relevant, there is "also an opportunity to build a simpler platform that's focused on privacy first," Zuckerberg says. "I understand that many people don't think Facebook can or would even want to build this kind of privacy-focused platform — because frankly we don't currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services, and we've historically focused on tools for more open sharing," Zuckerberg wrote.

On Wednesday, in a hearing before the House Financial Services Committee, Zuckerberg's prepared remarks offered a privacy mea culpa and called for outside assistance in policing the platform.

"This has been a challenging few years for Facebook. We understand we have a lot to do to live up to people's expectations on issues like privacy and security," Zuckerberg said.

"We know that companies like Facebook have become a part of people's everyday lives, and that comes with immense responsibilities and a lot of very difficult judgments. We don't think we should be tackling these issues alone, which is why I've called for a more active role for governments and regulators on harmful content, protecting elections, privacy, and data portability."

Facebook did not immediately respond to CNBC Make It's request for comment.

CORRECTION: This story has been revised to show that Facebook had more than 2.4 billion monthly active users in the second quarter of 2019.

See also:

Mark Zuckerberg has been talking about privacy for 15 years — here's almost everything he's said

Billionaire Marc Benioff: Capitalism has 'led to horrifying inequality' and must be fixed

Andrew Yang: You should get a check in the mail from Facebook, Amazon, Google for your data

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg draws strong reaction to free expression speech