Microsoft Tries to Patent Facebook's Privacy System -- but Its Target is Google

Last Updated Jan 6, 2011 5:44 PM EST

The past year was one you could mark by privacy leaks, and Facebook, as has often been true, was at the center of several such controversies. Such episodes are why the company had to create a set of granular privacy settings. And yet Microsoft (MSFT) has a patent application, which became public today, for just such a system -- and Facebook doesn't. The unseen factor behind this odd situation may be Google (GOOG).

Microsoft's application 20110004922, made public today, describes the following in the abstract:

Customized content sharing techniques are described. In an implementation, an input is accepted that describes a particular type of content. The input is provided via selection of one or more privacy settings for a user of a social network service. The input is also used to control which other users of the social network service are permitted to communicate content to the user.
More import, though, are some of the independent claims out of the 20 total listed. Here is the first:
A computer-implemented method comprising: accepting an input provided via selection of one or more privacy settings for a user of a social network service, the input describing a particular type of content; and controlling which other users of the social network service are permitted to communicate content to the user via the social network service based on the input.
In other words, for the first part, a user of a social network makes selections of various privacy settings for individual types of content. This would seem to cover how Facebook's privacy settings work:


The second part governs permissions for other users to send you something, based on the nature of what they would send. Consider that and look at this Facebook control:


Keep those in mind when reading another independent claim for the application -- claim 15:

One or more computer-readable media comprising instructions that are executable to: accept selection of a privacy setting to set access to a type of content for a user of a social network service; combine content, for the user that corresponds to the type of content, with an access control object that corresponds to the privacy setting and defines which other users of the social network service are permitted to access the content; and generate a presentation for the user that includes the content with the access control object applied that shows how the other users are presented with the content.
Notice that Microsoft filed its application on July 1, 2009, more than a year after Facebook rolled out its system. However, look at Facebook's patent applications and granted patents and you see nothing similar. Furthermore, Microsoft's patent application mentions no prior art -- previous inventions that might relate and affect whether a patent examiner sees enough similarities to reject the application.

So what is going on? I think the target of this is not Facebook. After all, remember that Microsoft invested in Facebook in 2007. Why would it try to disable Facebook? Looking at it in a larger context, this could well be aimed at Google or any other major competitor of Facebook and Microsoft that has an interest in social networks.

After all, Microsoft has far more resources for, and experience in, a patent battle than does Facebook. Microsoft could give Facebook a license and still create a strategic hindrance for Google. Remember, companies get patents for offensive and defensive reasons, and for a sum that would be piddling for the corporation, Microsoft could cause selective and effective distress to an enemy.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.