We’ve seen a lot of news recently surrounding Facebook and their changes they’ve made since their annual F8 developers conference where founder Mark Zuckerberg proclaimed that Facebook would now be sharing your data across a wider social graph so that your friends could get to know you better.
Well, that didn’t have the reaction that Facebook intended and what actually resulted was a backlash against the giant social network that has since resigned them to pull back from some of their work and rethink the one thing people are having issues with: their privacy.
It’s understood that within a social network, we’re free to share our data with our friends – hence what makes the service “social”. And we’re also able to control what information other people see – perhaps we don’t want our employers to see our wall posts or photos, or maybe let our friends see our information. Regardless of the types of privacy settings internally, we’re probably fine with having that control. But what users are not so inclined to allow is the additional sharing of their data without their consent – that being a violation of their privacy. Facebook’s work with the social graph is great, but what they seemed to have forgotten is that while users have consented to sharing their data on their social network, that agreement does not also constitute sending it to other social services like Pandora or news sites like CNN. Yes, it’s not feasible to poll everyone to have that option, but to help assuage the feelings of anger, Facebook and other social networks who intend on going through this course should simply set additional privacy settings and allow the user to choose where they would like to share their data.
To me, this is what this whole scenario sounds like:
You sign up for an email newsletter from a company to learn more about their products that you’re interested in and during the course of registration, you note specific things you’d like to know about: upcoming releases, product features, testimonials, etc. Over the next few months, the company does a good job reaching out to you via email newsletters targeted towards your request. But then, the company decides to take your data and share it with third-party companies without your consent and, as a result, you start getting their newsletters as well.
Does everyone have a point where they’ll give up their privacy?
Is this what you want? To not have any voice in determining where your information is sent? It’s great to have more connected social network so that we have the ability to find out more from our friends, but only with their consent and without destroying any sense of privacy that still remains on social networks. In fact, in a recent study published on eMarketer and done by public relations firm, Edelman, 13% of Internet users in the United States are comfortable with giving up their personal data for content. Edelman claims that since there’s no such thing as a free lunch (or in this case free content), US Internet users are willing to “make some sacrifices to get entertainment without paying”. Could this be a sign that money is more important than privacy?
We all know that using social networks like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter are free, so why should we complain? But do we still allow that laissez-faire approach affect how we view our data? Well 13% seem to think so. But what else would we willing to give up our privacy for? According to the Edelman study, if we give up our personal data, 47% of US Internet users would be fine with getting entertainment without any advertisements, 43% would give it up for the ability to share it with their friends, and 40% would want the ability to access it across multiple devices. Not quite 50%, but these numbers seem to indicate that there are a lot of people who just want the functionality and the entertainment value without understanding any long-term consequences of giving up data that they would not potentially want others to see.
A bigger question would be “What are social networks doing to help protect people from making these foolish decisions?”
Playing devil’s advocate for a moment
I’m not suggesting that social networks are the ones who should be criticized – in fact, it’s both the user and the social networks. After all, the users are the ones supplying the information and for what? Added superficial features that would only help them online? Some users who participate freely without regard for their data need to understand that their privacy is something very important to them. If there are unintended consequences from the result of them posting data online, then the one person they have to blame is themselves for posting it, not just that the social networks failed to enforce their privacy. The data would not have been there had the user not added it in themselves.
In fact, just look at an example written up in the Washington Post just this past weekend where they utilize the data in a social network:
When Disa Powell’s husband and brother were badly burned in an electrical explosion while conducting maintenance at a Wal-Mart store and the family sued, the defense went after something she never expected: her online life. Through a subpoena seeking information about the men’s injuries, Wal-Mart was able to gain full access to her Facebook and MySpace social-networking accounts — every public and private message, contact and photo for the previous 2 1/2 years…
And while online services like Facebook and MySpace are building dossiers on practically all their users, one thing to keep in mind is that you should not be putting information out on social networks that you wouldn’t share with the general public normally. There are different rules that people employ to help them figure out what data is private and what isn’t, but I’ll let you choose your own rule – just make sure you use common sense.
In a recent article by Tim O’Reilly, founder of O’Reilly Media and one of the most influential technologists in the country (maybe in the world) today, he defends Facebook’s recent privacy “crisis”. Why? Because it is a sign that entrepreneurs are learning and that they need to make these big mistakes in order to understand where the boundaries are. O’Reilly even goes as far as to support the social graph that Zuckerberg is trying to create. He goes on to say:
The world is changing. We give up more and more of our privacy online in exchange for undoubted benefits. We give up our location in order to get turn by turn directions on our phone; we give up our payment history in return for discounts or reward points; we give up our images to security cameras equipped with increasingly sophisticated machine learning technology. As medical records go online, we’ll increase both the potential and the risks of having private information used and misused.
It’s apparent that O’Reilly feels that while users are prone to giving up data to help make it more “entertaining” or to accomplish a certain purpose – whether it’s to view medical records, security or any other function, entrepreneurs like Zuckerberg or even Steve Jobs will need to understand how far they can push the limits on exposing user data without being a blatant violation of their privacy. Is the information being used in a helpful way to the user (not to the entrepreneur or any third-party)? In closing his post, O’Reilly acknowledges that there will be trade-offs, which makes perfect sense, because you’re not going to be able to have the luxury of using social network services for entertainment without possibly giving up your privacy. It seems that these two are at the opposite ends of the spectrum and to that end, we’ll need to find some happy medium.
Respect my privacy
Even so, just because Facebook has seemed to brush off the crowd’s anger towards its lack of care towards our privacy, the majority of people online still care about what is being said. Privacy doesn’t have to span just the data you input into social networks, but also how these services target you as well. Whether it’s reaching out to you through advertisements on the site or any other targeted marketing that only could be found through your personal data, that might not be acceptable. I suppose a failed example of this would be Facebook’s Beacon platform? Regardless, in the eMarketer article cited earlier, one of the suggestions given includes having marketers be conscious that while “users make certain information about themselves available, MOST still want their privacy respected“. Don’t make the mistake that you can do whatever you want without understanding the consequences – after all, chances are that the people building the social network are on social networks themselves…what would they think if someone did this to their data?
I, for one, am someone who likes to post a lot of data online, including photos and other content, but I also subscribe to the web 1.0 policy when it came to interacting with strangers in a chat room: be careful who you’re talking to because you never know who someone is online. With that being said, I think that privacy is a big issue and people should take it seriously when deciding what information should be put online. The fact that we’re not paying to use social networks (yet) is something we are always needing to be cautious about because these networks are probably going to look at the data as a metric to understand what new features are needed and whether or not they’re accomplishing their mission. But even still, social networks must be aware that privacy cannot be sacrificed entirely just to make their product a reality and success. Ensuring that the proper opt-out and security barriers are in place, plus educating their users on how to adjust these settings, is imperative for a service to show it cares.
So how are you viewing social networks? Do you think that most or any are respecting your privacy?
Photo Credit: Dave PearsonGoogle+