It's Time For The Social Media Industry To Step Up To The Plate On Privacy

Forgive me for harping on the same subject three weeks in a row, but it's time to talk about Facebook, and the sharing of personal information, yet again. Why? Because I'm growing increasingly convinced that social media, as an industry, needs to step up to the plate and make it clear to consumers how their data is being used. Or else.

I'll preface the rest of this column with some stats. Jeff Fox, Consumer Reports' technology editor, rattled off the following data on Facebook behavior during a panel (full stream here) the publication sponsored today, called "Social Insecurity: Risky Consumer Behavior During the Era of Social Networks":

·     56% of people have posted what Consumer Reports said was "risky" information.

·     42% have posted their full birth date, including the year (actually, I'm surprised at how many of my Facebook friends who are also in social media do that).

·     7% have posted their street address.

·     26% have posted photos of their children, including their names.

·     Roughly a quarter of those surveyed don't know about Facebook's privacy controls, even after Facebook did a campaign recently to publicize how to use them.

But those stats aren't even the alarming part. To me, the bigger problem is that the industry is being so lax in educating people about what information is dangerous to post, what isn't -- and, more importantly, how their information is being shared and disseminated.

The reason we don't see more action from the industry is obvious, but based in cynicism: the theory seems to be that if we tell people more about how their information is being used, they'll start holding back information. Then, there will be less data out there, and if there's less data out there, there's less for those who are planning to make money out of social media to make money from. Maybe telling consumers more about how their data is used will have that effect, at least initially, but that's the price the industry has to pay for long-term growth. Being deceitful isn't the answer.

However, I'm advocating that the industry take the long view, by remembering what social media was supposed to be about in the first place: transparency. It's time to start an industry-wide initiative to tell consumers, in language they can understand, how and where their data is being used, to make it easy for them to opt out, to tell them the pros and cons of doing so, and then move on to continuing the innovation that makes the industry so promising and, at many times, beneficial. You'll lose some users in the process, but you'll also garner the trust social media needs to continue to flourish.

It's true that two weeks later, the central irony of the announcement of Facebook's Open Graph has yet to escape me:  that the 800-lb. gorilla of social media isn't living by the very rules of being open and honest on which so much social marketing is premised. (Or, it thinks it's being open and honest, but is so far down the track of technological complexity it's forgotten how to describe what it does plain English.)

In his presentation today, Fox walked the audience briefly through the steps it would take for Facebook users to not have friends divulge information about them in a more public fashion. Of the complex process he said: "[It's] an interface that's so confounding and filled with hurdles that it's almost intended to discourage people from using the controls that are out there."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a shorter name for it: the "evil interface" -- which, I should point out, applies to any interface that fails the simplicity test or outright tricks users when it comes to "sharing more info about themselves than they really want to." Lee Tien, an EFF senior staff attorney who also appeared on the panel today, explained that the problem is not just one of "EI"'s, but also of jargon. The EFF has gone so far as to create a Facebook-to-English translator, explaining concepts like the "social plug-in" in language that most of us can understand.

Good for it, but bad for social media. While Facebook's Open Graph announcement put a fine point on problems that have been gathering steam for some time, this problem is not just Facebook's. As you'll note from some of what I've reported above, too much of the time it's outside parties who are taking the bull by the horns and giving guidance to consumers. If the entities to whom you're giving lots of personal data need a platoon of watchdogs to police what they're doing, that's not good -- the signal it sends to consumers is anything but reassuring. It's time for the industry to act.

 (Editor's note: The agenda for June 17th's OMMA Social NY is shaping up. Take a look here.)

5 comments about "It's Time For The Social Media Industry To Step Up To The Plate On Privacy".
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  1. Howie Goldfarb from Blue Star Strategic Marketing, May 5, 2010 at 5:33 p.m.


    One of the best posts I have read of yours and one of the best on privacy. Everyone in the industry talks about it. In fact most of the most vocal proponents of social media who are not employed by one of the networks or the VC's backing them all have their Facebook profiles completely locked down. That is the biggest proof privacy is important vs what Snake Oil Salesman Pete Cashmore says which is that we don't want it or need it.

    Facebook could lock down its network. Make it 100% private and secure and charge a measly $2/month and instantly be a $7bil revenue company. Yet their business model is exploiting their users content and information? They get bad advice and the upper management are slimes and the instant a better network pops up every one will leave Facebook. Deservedly so!

    Cheers and great lay out of what should be done. I'm on board.

  2. Jeffrey Burke from Marketing, May 5, 2010 at 5:58 p.m.

    Also alarming from the EFF is

    basically this is how their privacy has "changed" over time, ie before they had LOTS of data and then ONCE they had lots of data.

    Facebook is very useful, but I check the privacy settings once a week, and still assume anything I put up there is a) now public domain and b) public information.

  3. Ralph Sherman from Madison2Main, May 5, 2010 at 11:50 p.m.

    Bravo Catharine. You'd think people/companies that hope to make a living through "sharing" would recognize the importance of trust and transparency. Facebook and others are crossing over to the creepy zone currently occupied by those great guys on Wall Street. Self-regulation is always better than legislation but companies better quickly realize their customers' interest is their interest.

  4. Tom Troja from Social Sympony, May 6, 2010 at 9:36 a.m.

    facebook has to be concerned about the industry growing up around it and the pagans among them who will use their platform to do whatever they can to be the next zynga.

    That is where the closer term risk sits, as smart but ethically challenged folks take whatever data they can get w/o facebooks direct involvement. Longer term... facebook has to be real careful as nothing will ever be truly secure and social is all about connecting and sharing... so stuff will be out there.

    It has been how many years since... Scott McNealy of Sun said "You have zero privacy anyway, so get over it"... could we all be getting over it now and the majority... have gotten over it?... T'was 1999... or as people sloppily say... back in the day.

  5. Lisa Foote from MixMobi, May 6, 2010 at 4:20 p.m.

    I agree with Howie - outstanding post, Catharine. I find Blippy even more alarming than Facebook: imagine someone who has posted their street address and upcoming vacation schedule on Facebook informing the world that they just bought very expensive entertainment equipment.

    I hope the longer-term vision you advocate sets in soon.

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