Opt-Out Man: The Summer Catch-Up Tour

As the controversies surrounding digital privacy become more public, the responses of media companies especially become more important and telling. I have always contended that despite the efforts of the ad infrastructure to erect self-regulatory regimes around privacy, it really is the publisher in the end who faces the consumer on these matters. Civilians just don't care or know who Rubicon Project, ValueClick or AudienceSciene are.  

While current efforts to make the ad ecosystem and data collection more transparent are laudable in the abstract, I am still doubtful that most consumers really will benefit from having the plumbing they don't care about surfaced.  

Very few media companies have taken up the challenge of speaking frankly to their own users about privacy on their own destination sites and how data is collected and shared. Like the sex talk, the privacy talk is complicated and a tad embarrassing (you share my data with how many networks?) and usually put off for another time. My guess is that most publishers are hoping the "talk" is permanently deferred, either by self-regulatory efforts that keep government regulation at bay, or by the pipe dream that a younger generation "doesn't care about privacy" and so the issue will fade over time.  

Getting a handle on the real depth and nature of privacy concerns is difficult. If you look at the crudest measure, Google itself, it is hard to see the groundswell of concern. Go to Google Trends and search "online privacy" and you will see that in 2010 news coverage of the issue increased, while user searches on the term stayed at about the same index levels they have been for several years.

I spoke with one prominent media researcher recently who expressed frustration with the shallowness of data on how Americans really feel about sharing their histories and profiles across a number of different scenarios. He is planning on a deeper drill of these matters, contending that the standard questions we ask of users in most snap polls don't get at the complexity of the matter.

Young people are not blasé about their own data, he suspects. To older onlookers, the frankness and explicitness of younger users on the social networks is easily mistaken for wholesale disinterest in the privacy issue. On social networks they are in control of the information they reveal and often to whom it is broadcast. Their attitudes towards third parties' access to their data could be quite detached and even radically different from their personal expressiveness.

Apple's entry into the social media market this week is an interesting case of a major media entity coming into the shallow end of the privacy pool... slowly and tentatively The newly launched Ping music social network lets iTunes users establish an online profile and share the music they like and buy with others. Initially, Apple wanted to use Facebook Connect as its social network engine, but negotiations with Facebook fell through.

Perhaps because its original plans were nixed (or because Apple decided to play it safe) the Ping we now see is actually a modest and well-walled social network that treads very carefully on issues of privacy. It is a good example of how a media company learned from the missteps of others like Facebook, and tried to create an approach to privacy that is cleaner and simpler than Facebook's notoriously opaque system.

Opt-out man, who is otherwise a no-taste dunderhead when it comes to music, couldn't resist a hands-on encounter with Ping.

Ping is now available in the iTunes 10 upgrade, and it seems to be a relatively innocuous and non-invasive version of sharing. Apple's sign-up was painless and transparent. It warned me in a few lines that the profile would be public and could be turned off at any time. It took my uploaded photo and seemed to pre-select two of the three genres I could list on the profile as favorites. I am gathering it pulled those preferences from my purchase history. In gathering data for recommendations and publishing likes and dislikes, Apple appears to be drawing the line well apart from your desktop. Even though iTunes is both a storefront (now a social net) and a personal music library, Ping didn't appear to be referencing the library of music it holds on my PC. Instead Ping's public-facing content was being culled from the albums I "liked" by clicking the relevant button in the store, the artists and people I "followed," and the music I purchased. 

To Apple's credit, Ping privacy settings are simple and explained without the usual ambiguities and nomenclature that clouds the process at other networks. I found three clear choices of how to share data: to automatically display the music I like, buy or rate; or manually pick the music to show; or show nothing at all to others. ITunes users still can share their "likes" on Facebook, but it is an ad hoc process where each instance kicks the user over to a separate Facebook log-in opting into posting the note to one's Facebook page.  

Which is not to say that Apple has cracked any code in dealing with privacy. While other social nets might take a few cues from Ping's sign-up process, the Apple privacy policy could use a similar makeover.  

With its reach into purchase history, geo-location, app usage and other kinds of data, Apple arguably has some data points on millions of us that even Google would envy. The privacy policy now stands at over 2,300 words to cover all of those businesses, and there are plenty of loopholes built in for third-party data sharing. This is one place where the Apple design magic is sorely needed. 

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