Privacy, Social Media, Social Networking Websites, Technology, Twittering

Are Social Media Companies Really Going to Start Endorsing Privacy Protections?

Over the weekend, Twitter users received a lengthy email from the social media company providing details on significant changes to the company’s privacy policy and terms of service.

While Mark Zuckerberg was going public and getting married, the folks at Twitter made an unexpected endorsement of increasingly popular privacy protection technology

The most relevant part of the update was a further explanation of how Twitter uses the information it gathers from its users, as well as an endorsement of increasingly popular “Do Not Track” technology.

We’ve provided more details about the information we collect and how we use it to deliver our services and to improve Twitter. One example: our new tailored suggestions feature, which is based on your recent visits to websites that integrate Twitter buttons or widgets, is an experiment that we’re beginning to roll out to some users in a number of countries. Learn more here.

We’ve noted the many ways you can set your preferences to limit, modify or remove the information we collect. For example, we now support the Do Not Track (DNT) browser setting, which stops the collection of information used for tailored suggestions.

We’ve clarified the limited circumstances in which your information may be shared with others (for example, when you’ve given us permission to do so, or when the data itself is not private or personal). Importantly, our privacy policy is not intended to limit your rights to object to a third party’s request for your information.

The “DNT” option, as it’s known for short, is building steam as people are becoming increasingly aware of — and frustrated with — the way in which social media companies handle personal data. But the timing on Twitter’s decision to officially endorse it is probably not a coincidence.

Last week, I wrote about a large settlement MySpace made with the FTC about allegedly deceptive privacy policies. And as we mentioned in today’s Morning Docket, at the same time as Facebook was celebrating its IPO, the company also found itself at the center of a large class-action lawsuit:

Facebook Inc. (FB), the social network operator whose shares began trading yesterday, was sued for $15 billion in an amended complaint by subscribers who claim the company invaded their privacy by tracking their Internet use.

In the complaint filed May 17 in federal court in San Jose, California, the plaintiffs say Facebook improperly tracked users even after they logged out. Twenty-one cases making similar claims have been consolidated before the court. The latest filing seeks to proceed on behalf of U.S. residents who subscribed to Facebook from May 2010 to September 2011.

When you think about it, it’s a fascinating catch-22 that these social media companies are finding themselves in. Users take advantage of social media services by providing personal information at one level or another, whether it’s by way of photographs, text, whatever. The companies make money by sharing that information with people who want to sell things back to users (it’s the ciiiircle of life). Even though at some level, users are voluntarily throwing personal information out there, you unavoidably run into major trust issues — despite any and all assurances from the technology companies — when you know that your information is not only being sold, but it is the lifeblood of the companies’ business models.

For a long time, most people were not aware of how this all worked, so it was often, practically speaking, not a big deal. But there is higher knowledge saturation now, and it seems people are getting angrier in bigger numbers.

I’m not sure anyone knows how the tech industry will handle this conundrum going forward. Maybe the future will consist of the AOL model: most people will protect their data, and only old or supremely unsavvy people will unintentionally allow their information to finance the tech giants. For better or worse, that’s probably way too simple to ever actually happen.

In any case, see Twitter’s whole email on the next page…

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