“Your privacy is important to us.”
If your privacy was really important, would the websites that you visit every day, the ones that you use to share stories with family and connect with long-distance friends, need to continuously revise a contract to tell you so? If social media websites really did respect your privacy, would policies be so littered with jargon that the entire document reads like fine print?
One of the social media privacy (or “data use”) policies to capture the most heated attention is Facebook’s.
More updates in May 2010 resolved some of these issues by allowing users some additional control over their privacy settings, but a settlement between Facebook and the FTC wasn’t officially settled until August 2012. The punishment for misleading users “by telling them they could keep their information on Facebook private, and then repeatedly allowing it to be shared and made public,” as the FTC stated, did not include any fines or force it to admit wrongdoing. Instead, the government agency was proactive, focusing on what Facebook can do in the future to protect users’ privacy.
If the business of Facebook was directly related to customer use – if, for example, users had to pay to maintain and use their accounts on the website – you may be right. But Facebook isn’t selling the website to users; instead, it’s selling users like you to advertisers. “The company thrives on allowing advertisers to target their potential customers with pinpoint accuracy, and that takes highly personal data,” reported Web Pro News. So, unless users’ anger reaches a point where there is a true boycott of the site to the point that it becomes an ineffective medium for advertising – unlikely, given how frequently many of us use the site without even thinking about it – Facebook isn’t exactly answering to us.
They Can’t Do That! Or Can They?
But just as social media sites are ever-evolving, so are their privacy policies. “Write Instagram to inform them you won’t be accepting their newly updated Terms of Service,” urged NaturalExposures.com. “The newly revised version that still gives them the right to do whatever they want with YOUR photographs. Even if you don’t care to make money from your pictures, do you want your private collection of images available for ads like Viagra, alcoholic products or cigarette promotions?”
The Confusion Factor
Just how confusing are social media privacy policies? You might be surprised. In 2012, Siegel+Gale tested participants on comprehension of documents perceived as complicated. Compared to government notices (average comprehension score of 70 percent), bank credit card agreements (68 percent), and bank reward-program rules (51 percent), far fewer participants understood Facebook and Google privacy policies (39 percent and 36 percent comprehension scores, respectively). That means that significantly less than half of respondents understood their privacy rights and settings on Facebook, and barely over one-third fully comprehended Google’s use of personal data. That’s because they’re not put in laymen’s terms, and in many cases, they are so convoluted that even if you understand the words and theoretical concepts, it’s impossible to understand the practical implications as they relate to your personal use of social media. “While privacy policies can help users understand what personal information is being collected, they often need ‘college-level reading skills’ to understand them,” reported CIO, an IT publication and site.
(The Illusion of) Progress
Another reason privacy policies are so mysterious to many users is the ever-changing nature of both the documents and the website features. “As Facebook added new features and its privacy controls grew increasingly complicated, those controls became effectively unusable for many people,” reported The New York Times. For many users, that’s exactly the ongoing problem. There are too many options to customize, and their distinctions can be so slight that it’s hard to know what you are agreeing to.
“Critics charge the constantly changing privacy policies are intentionally confusing – that the sheer hassle of opting out of information sharing keeps users blissfully ignorant and vulnerable,” reported Infomedia. When we discover what we consider to be an invasion of privacy, though, we feel more betrayed than blissful. “Facebook seems to tweak its privacy policies more than most people change their profile photos,” reported NBC News. “Keeping track of it all is quite a chore — especially for consumers who are not well-versed in making their way through the labyrinth of legalese in such policies.”
As an attorney myself, I obviously appreciate the importance of legal documents being thorough and precise. But it seems to me that this utter lack of understanding of the basic tools we use every day for communication is a red flag. There needs to be some level of protection for the consumers as well as the business, and that means that your informed consent to share data matters. Your privacy really is important – and it’s time corporations start acting like it.
Busy Lives and Dismissive Site Attitudes
The option to create new accounts on new websites just by logging in with your Facebook account may seem time-saving. You don’t have to type out your name, email address, gender, and any number of other contact information. It’s simple and convenient – perhaps dangerously so.
“What did you just agree to? Did you mean to reveal information as vital as your date of birth and e-mail address?” wrote The New York Times. “Most of us face such decisions daily. We are hurried and distracted and don’t pay close attention to what we are doing. Often, we turn over our data in exchange for a deal we can’t refuse.” Whether that deal is a discount for an online retailer, a new app for your phone, or the latest addicting Facebook game, you didn’t get it for free. “You pay for your place on Facebook with personal information – as much or as little as you choose to provide,” reported Infomedia. “As Facebook and other social media networks continue to extend their reach, you need to be aware of who’s sharing what with whom.”
As we spend more time in the virtual world, it becomes clear that concerns over privacy won’t be going away anytime soon. Sites will likely continue asking users to surrender more and more personal information in order to use their services. And based on past experiences, we’ll comply. Despite the controversy surrounding Facebook’s decision to enact new, controversial privacy policies, “modifications to the Facebook interface and default settings led to a significant increase in the public disclosure of personal information,” Phys.org reported.
What Responsibilities Do Sites Have Regarding Customer Privacy?
While we may like to think that we can trust these social media sites, we can’t be sure that these companies – because that’s what they are – will always have our best interests at heart. When it comes to privacy concerns, there are some gray areas. “The purpose of Facebook is to connect and be social with others,” argued Web Pro News. “Expecting such a platform to accommodate secrets or systematically attempt to protect users’ privacy is foolish.”
Foolish? No. Unrealistically optimistic? Maybe.
Until these questions are answered, if they ever are, the best way to protect your privacy is to be proactive. Take the time to read privacy policies when you come across them. If you have questions, reach out to customer service. Check your privacy settings regularly. Most importantly, remember that everything you post on the Internet could find its way to a public place, and once content appears online, it can never really disappear (keep in mind that the Belvedere Vodka ad was deleted within hours – but it can still be found with relative ease). Content posted on the Internet is malleable. It can be found by anyone (employers, acquaintances, insurance companies) and be taken out of context, distorted, and totally altered. Are you okay with that?
You shouldn’t have to be policing the privacy regulations, but you also shouldn’t fall prey to the inappropriate use of your personal information and content because unscrupulous companies took advantage of your trust. Keeping yourself informed is the best way to help make sure that these sites respect you and your privacy.
Attorney Richard P. Console, Jr., managing partner of award-winning law firm Console & Hollawell, has practiced personal injury law throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania since 1994. He currently resides in South Jersey with his family, where he devotes his professional life to standing up for accident victims and spends free time reading and playing basketball with his sons.