Will Foursquare Dodge User Backlash As It Changes Privacy Policies?

By Cameron Scott 

social networks, social networking, social media, local search, recommendationsFoursquare announced plans over the holiday weekend to change its privacy policies effective at the end of the month, which, while unlikely to cause the kind of brouhaha that Instagram’s proposed changes did, may not take effect without controversy.

“As our product evolves, one of the things we do is update our policies to match it. And a big aspect of that is privacy (something we think about a lot),” the company said in an email to users.

The company flagged plans to consistently display users’ first and last names, rather than first name and last initial, and to show business owners information about which users have checked in to their venue for the whole day rather than just three hours.

By emailing users individually, explaining the changes in simple terms and pointing them to a Privacy 101 page for more information, Foursquare is clearly hoping to avoid the kind of privacy flap Instagram has just gone through.

Privacy advocates thought the changes were less controversial than Instagram’s, but may still result in ruffled feathers for some users.

“The degree of the change is smaller. Going from displaying a user’s full name part of the time to displaying it all of the time is a much smaller change than what the text of the proposed Instagram policy would have allowed,” said David Jacobs, consumer protection counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. 

But the company will have to do more than email its 30 million users to ensure that they aren’t taken by surprise by the move to use their last names, said Justin Brookman, director of the project on consumer privacy at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

“If you sign up being told that you’ll be disclosed to strangers as John M., you can’t just suddenly start disclosing him to the world as John McDonald,” he said.

Foursquare will have to put notification of the change directly into its user workflow to really ensure that users understand what’s at stake. “Typically, if you’re materially expanding the disclosure of previously provided information, like real name, you need users’ affirmative permission for that,” Brookman said.

According to Foursquare’s description in the email to users, the service now “sometimes shows your full name and sometimes shows your first name and last initial. For instance, if you search for a friend in Foursquare, we show their full name in the results, but when you click through to their profile page you don’t see their last name.”

Unlike Facebook, which owns Instagram, Foursquare does not forbid users to use pseudonyms. The service also allows users to opt out of having their check-ins included in activity reports for business owners.

“Privacy-sensitive users have more options for exercising control on Foursquare [than on Instagram], as they can edit their names in their account settings, and can restrict their visibility to businesses. It’s not just ‘take it or leave it,'” said Jacobs.