The Internet has long grappled with the issue of consumer privacy. In this new eight-part series, Digiday examines the issue of “Redefining Privacy.” The series is made possible through the sponsorship of Truste, a provider of online privacy services.
The shift to social media has meant an explosion in the amount of user-created data. The question now is where the line is drawn for how that data is used. From Facebook’s privacy missteps to the recent controversy over social app Path downloading users’ contact lists, social media is the next front in the digital world’s ongoing struggle to balance privacy with innovation.
Consumers are becoming more or less conditioned to share online via platforms like Facebook and Twitter. This has gone a long way toward connecting people all around the world. It has also raised thorny questions about what all that user-contributed social data means to personal privacy. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has gone as far as to say that privacy is no longer a social norm, claiming that consumers no longer expect privacy since they are so willing to share their personal lives online.
This shifting definition of privacy doesn’t sit well with some. The argument made by many privacy advocates boils down to consumers’ lack of understanding of what the data they share online is used for.
“I think that social media and the success of Facebook, specifically, is ground zero for privacy and digital consumer protection,” said Jeff Chester, director of the Center of Digital Democracy. “The practices within the social-media marketing sector raise a lot of major issues in terms of the data mining practices that brands are conducting. The increasing integration of mobile and location adds to it even more.”
About a year and a half ago, Facebook said it would allow people to have control over how their information is shared. Additionally, Facebook does not give advertisers access to people’s personal information and does not sell any of people’s information to anyone. In an interview with the New York Times last year, Facebook’s vp for public policy, Elliot Schrage, said that his company does not share information with advertisers in the sense that the targeting capabilities given to brands are anonymous. In other words, Facebook does not identify or share names.
“Think of a magazine selling ads based on the demographics and perceived interests of its readers,” Schrage told the Times. “We don’t sell the subscriber list. We protect the names.”
Even such anonymous tracking of social activity is too much for Chester, who finds it “deeply disturbing” that brands are now using on Facebook and even on Twitter to capture and harvest rich data profiles and that consumers have no idea they are allowing apps to collect data and trigger behavior that will involve their friends and others. The location piece is also a privacy issue, Chester claims.
“Mobile and the use of location is really the most sensitive of the data,” Chester said. “You are telling advertisers where you’ve been and where you are right this moment. This is a sensitive piece of consumer information being accessed without the consumer really knowing.”
Chester’s remedy: allow Facebook users to opt out of all tracking. The problem here, other than hurting Facebook’s business model, is it is attempting to make its ads as social as the rest of the site. Everything you see on Facebook is things your friends find interesting. The ads should follow that path, Facebook execs have said in the past.
“The fact that people are upset at these companies and websites over privacy concerns is out of ignorance,” said Jason Falls, founder of Social Media Explorer. “Facebook, for instance, has always had layers of privacy for all tastes and preferences. Certainly, it has set them to be rather liberal by default at times and should have done a better job of educating its users on how and why to change the settings, but the privacy controls have always been there. People upset about privacy on social networks simply don’t know how to use the tools well enough.”