Consumer Reports Roundtable: Who’s To Blame For Rising Privacy Problems on Social Networks?

NEW YORK:  Consumer Reports’ Kevin McKean shared a few statistics from the company’s annual report on Internet privacy and security at a roundtable discussion held at NYU on Thursday night. Shortly thereafter, a panel of experts wondered aloud whether the privacy controls belong on the social networks or on the people who use them.

At first glance, the statistics were alarming. In 2012, 7 million Facebook users reported bad experiences ranging from having other people log into their accounts without their permission to receiving threats – a figure that had gone up 30 percent from last year.

There were 39.3 million people who named their family members on their profiles, while 4.8 million might have unwittingly tipped off burglars by announcing that they had left the house.

Others made themselves vulnerable to discrimination by revealing information about their lifestyles. There were 2.3 million Facebook users who liked pages about sexual orientation and 7.7 million who liked pages related to religious affiliations.

Even worse off were the 4.7 million people who could be flagged by insurance companies for liking a page related to health conditions and treatments.

But it wasn’t all bad news. There were only 5.6 million minors on Facebook in 2012 compared to 20 million in 2011. Facebook itself had identified and closed many of those accounts.

MSNBC Technology writer Bob Sullivan led the round table discussion on how to help consumers protect themselves in the age of social media. Lamenting the lack of millenials in the room, Sullivan asked the panelists what they would say to a younger person who didn’t care about privacy controls.

Replied Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, “It’s a myth that young people don’t care about privacy.”

“The things that people are really concerned about are…bad things happening to their bank accounts, to their identities, and to their well-being,” agreed Linda Woolley, EVP for Washington Operations at the Direct Marketing Association.

Other privacy issues are more subtle. Jules Polonetsky, co-chair and director of the Future of Privacy Forum, described an awkward moment when he found out, after the fact, that the photo-ranking app Pixable had notified his Facebook friends that he had been looking at more pictures of women than men. “It’s about usability as much as it is about privacy,” Polonetsky said of the feature.

Independent researcher Ashkan Soltani pointed out that a site’s default settings, as well as the size and placement of the control buttons, do have an impact on how much people share.

But Steve Rubel, EVP of Global Strategy and Insights at Edelman, argued that consumers would give up their privacy with or without confusing buttons because of the “emotional payoff” that they get from sharing with others online.”It’s not a tech problem,” he said. “It’s a people problem.”

“Facebook is a marketing company,” added May First/People Link founder Alfredo Lopez. “Asking Facebook to promote privacy controls is like asking the automobile industry to sponsor bicycles.”

Woolley agreed that the industry “is gamed to tempt you to buy more and better things at a time when you might be interested in buying more and better things,” and that a $300 billion-dollar industry that contributes 2.1 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product should not be taken for granted. “Keep the economy in mind,” she advised.

There are also serendipitous rewards for connecting with others online, like charity fundraising efforts that go viral. From the audience, What Would Google Do? author Jeff Jarvis warned privacy advocates not to “lose sight of the benefits of sharing to our society.”

Image by Gunnar Pippel via Shutterstock.