MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to head now from the site of the Super Bowl to some of the world's biggest websites. Big changes are in store at Google and Facebook.
Facebook is the world's largest social media site, and the company filed for its initial public offering, or IPO, yesterday. It is hoping to raise $5 billion through the sale of stock to the public. At the same time, Facebook is catching flack for its timeline format. The timeline takes all of your postings and photos - like that embarrassing picture from the kegger in 2006 - and makes them easily available for you and other users to see.
Here to explain what all of this could mean for you is Cecilia Kang. She is a national technology reporter for the Washington Post, and she's with us from the newsroom there. Thank you so much for joining us.
CECILIA KANG: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Could we just start with the news about Facebook? Why does this IPO - this initial public offering, this first sale of stock to the public - why is it creating so much excitement?
KANG: Well, it's creating so much excitement because everybody knows how dominant Facebook has become, how it's become sort of the social network of choice. I think it has about 90 percent of all users - social media users. Eight hundred and forty-five million users around the globe are using Facebook, so everybody knew that there's a lot of value in this company. So it became, really, sort of the most anticipated business event that people had been looking for for quite some time.
MARTIN: Is there enough growth potential in Facebook to warrant this price tag?
KANG: It's a great question. The thing about this stock offering is that, you know, Wall Street is unforgiving in some ways, and they want continued growth. And Facebook's growth is still on a trajectory, but it's slowing. And so Facebook - that's going to be a big question. How will Facebook make money, particularly over mobile devices? Because, as of now, they aren't making money off of ads on mobile devices.
But at the same time, it is, again, the most dominant social network on the Internet, and that means that if an advertiser wants to get their message across, that's the company that you want to go to, the website, Facebook, because you're going to meet - you're going to have the most bang for your buck, reach the most users globally by approaching Facebook.
So, yes, there's a lot of excitement, but growth is going to be a big question going forward.
MARTIN: But the very dominance of the company is exactly what raises concerns about the next thing I want to talk to you about, which is the timeline. Tell us how it works and why so many people are so concerned about this.
KANG: Sure. You know, the timeline basically is Facebook's way to take all the information that you've given the website - from your photos to the videos you posted to status updates to clicking that little Like button, saying that you like a particular fan page or like a comment made by a friend or family member - and putting that all into what they would call sort of a scrapbook.
The thing is, some users feel like it just - you know, that the company is putting together their information in a way that's a little bit more revealing. Of course, it's not that more people will see it, but it kind of just puts everything out there in this different sort of format that feels a little bit more baring in some ways.
And it's another example of a company - including Google, as well - that is taking information. And for some users - many users, actually - are using their information, using consumer information in a way that users may not want to be used, that they never gave permission in the first place to be used, and they feel sort of out of control. Users are feeling a little out of control with what they've given these websites.
MARTIN: Well, we're speaking with Cecilia Kang, national technology reporter for the Washington Post. We're talking about big news involving media giants Facebook and Google. So, obviously, we want to talk about what's going on with Google, but just one more question on the Facebook question. What does the company say about that, when users are expressing concern about that? What do they say?
KANG: Sure. Facebook says, listen, we're not changing your privacy settings, meaning if you said you only want to share your photos with just particular friends, we're not going to change that at all. We're changing the way it looks, the way - how much is out there on the front page, the photos we put up there. We're making this more of a digital scrapbook than it is sort of the news feed the way that it's displayed now. All we're doing is changing the look. We're not changing how many people can see it.
So, you know, that is definitely something that Facebook has in its defense. That said, sometimes the way things look can feel a little bit more revealing than some people feel comfortable with.
MARTIN: Sure. So let's switch gears now and talk about an issue that really is about privacy, at least as far as the users are concerned. Google says, in essence - well, the change - this is how I understand it. You can tell me if I'm right or wrong.
MARTIN: But as you wrote in the piece last week, it'll allow the company to stitch together a fuller portrait of users, but some members of Congress are so concerned about this that they've asked to meet with Google CEO Larry Page. So tell us more about this. What's your assessment of this?
KANG: Sure. I think the biggest question is why the company decided not to let users say, no thank you. We're not so interested in combining - I'm not so interested in combining my Gmail information with my Picasa information so that you can target ads in a different way toward me. I think that's the biggest question, is that why there isn't an opt-out, an option to say, no, thank you. I don't want this to happen. That's what - actually what Congress - members of Congress are concerned about and they want to know a little bit more about.
As to - they're not necessarily collecting more information. What they're doing, as you just said, is combining data across your services. As long as you're signed in, what they can do is - for example, if you're signed in to Gmail, see that, oh, actually, you know, at the same time, you're surfing for this - you're searching for this on the search engine and watching a particular video clip. So now I know that on YouTube you like Tony Hawk skateboarding videos and on the search engine, you have looked for skateboard prices. So now, next time I might recommend a - you know, a skateboard show in L.A. or something of that sort.
So it's stitching together a more complete picture, as you said, of a person - their likes, their habits, their dislikes.
MARTIN: You know, there's been a lot of division in the tech blogging world about this. On the one hand, some people are saying, well, that's just common sense. I mean, that's just sort of the logical evolution of how this information gets used. Other people are saying, you know what? There's not enough security now. There are still people hacking in, finding out - wiping out people's databases, wiping out their personal information, that this just isn't warranted.
And, again, why can't people opt out? So, Cecilia, I have to ask again. What does the company say about this? Why can't people opt out?
KANG: Sure. The company says that it wouldn't be - they wouldn't be able to provide great tailored, customized services without everybody doing this at once. Why do it halfway? Let's go full force on this. So they - you know, they say that there isn't an opt-out provision, and they say that this is better for its users.
And there is division as to whether this is good or not. Somebody - behavior as - I would love it if, in some ways, if somebody could tell me that something's for sale for something that I would actually like to buy, as opposed to something that's not even on my radar. And so getting my demographic data and, you know, my behavioral, you know, habits, some data on that, in some ways, it's not such a bad idea, some users would say.
MARTIN: OK. So...
KANG: But others...
MARTIN: I think - I'm sorry, Cecilia. We're out of time, but something tells me we're going to be talking about this again. So...
KANG: I'd be happy to.
MARTIN: ...please keep us posted. Cecilia Kang is a national technology reporter for the Washington Post. She joined from the studio at the Washington Post. Cecilia, thank you so much for keeping us up to date.
KANG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.