Examining your rights and Facebook’s privacy policies

Facebook-Privacy-Policy-Screenshot

“Your privacy is important to us.”

How many times have you heard this spiel? “Your privacy is important to us. Read our privacy policy.”

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.

“A privacy policy is a disclosure document, whose purpose is to inform (and therefore protect) consumers,” Businessweek advised business owners. Yet all too often, there’s nothing informative about these unintelligible documents – and that may be the point.

Why the FTC Didn’t ‘Like’ Facebook’s Privacy Policy

“Confused by Facebook’s new privacy policy? You’re supposed to be,” read the title of Digital Trends’ blog post on the subject. It’s not just a subjective opinion, either. The social media site’s 2009 revisions to the privacy policy received such heated attention that the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed official complaints against the social media giant for what The New York Times referred to as “deceptive practices.” The specific policies that have come under fire include the automatic public display of personal information such as users’ names, location, gender, and (certain) photographs, as well as social media activity such as “liked” pages and friends lists. Users were not able to opt out of the publication of this private personal information.

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.

While this particular firestorm has finally been extinguished, it wasn’t the site’s first privacy policy update to inspire backlash, and it probably won’t be the last. “Ever since Facebook was founded in 2004, Mark Zuckerberg, its chief executive, has pushed its users to share more information about themselves,” The New York Times wrote in 2010. “Time and again, users have pushed back, complaining that some new feature or setting on the site violated their privacy.”

Knowing that user complaints and federal sanctions follow privacy setting changes, you might expect any social media site to learn from past mistakes. Facebook’s administrators and staff might count themselves lucky that they escaped the financial penalties that the FTC hit Google with over its last privacy policy debacle.

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.

And Facebook is far from the only social media site to face privacy policy concerns. “Facebook takes the heat on privacy issues in part because with more than 400 million active users worldwide, it’s the 300 pound gorilla of social networking. What happens on Facebook matters to a majority of on-line Americans,” reported Infomedia. In reality, “Facebook and other social media sites share your personal information with various third parties who have a vested interest in who you’re socializing with, what you’re buying, what you’re reading, and basically where you’re hanging out on the web.” In essence, we’re assuming that all of our trusted social media sites have confusing or deceptive privacy policies – Facebook is just a scapegoat. Consider the headline-stealing ire that Instagram inspired last year when users learned that a part of the photo-sharing site’s updated privacy policy could be construed as authorization for businesses to steal and use site users’ photographs as advertisements without asking permission or paying for the work.

They Can’t Do That! Or Can They?

When the new Instagram privacy policy updates angered users worldwide, they weren’t overreacting. They were instead making the kind of necessary clamor to dissuade the social media company from overstepping their boundaries – for a little while, anyway.

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?”

If it seems far-fetched, it’s not. Who can forget the outlandishly offensive ad (seen here on The Huffington Post) that Belvedere Vodka plastered across social media sites in March 2012? In April 2012, the woman whose photograph was used without permission in the distasteful advertisement filed a claim against the alcohol company, a different Huffington Post article reported. It turns out that the company had inappropriately stolen the image from a video (completely unrelated to rape) that had been posted on YouTube. While Belvedere could be facing a lawsuit for their actions, the type of privacy policy language that Instagram users are fearing could potentially make actions like this perfectly legal in the future.

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.

Facebook-privacy-dialog-box

“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.”

It’s this ‘legalese’ that seems to be an issue. “Policies are commonly long, textual explanations of data practices, most frequently written by lawyers to protect companies against legal action,” reported ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in 2011. “It has been established through numerous studies that people do not read privacy policies and make mistaken assumptions based upon seeing that a site has a link to a privacy policy.”

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 complexity of privacy policies is just the start of the problem. It’s compounded by hectic, constantly on-the-go schedules, and it’s no secret that many websites (social media and otherwise) tend to understate the importance of knowing the corporation’s privacy policy – and the extent of your rights. Like “I have read and agree to the Terms of Use,” the phrase “I have read and understand the privacy policy” has become one of the most popular lies on the Internet.

When was the last time you actually clicked on a link and tried to read a privacy policy? Let’s be honest, at this point even the clearest privacy policy can’t help us if we never see it. As we move increasingly into the age of the smartphone, we are signing up for apps and accounts, and even making purchases, without ever being near a real computer. That means our screens are smaller, our keyboards are virtual, and our attention is likely elsewhere. The chances that we are actually reading privacy policies and terms of use? Slim, and continually shrinking.

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.

Consequences from the FTC can help persuade social media sites to be more transparent about their use of our private information. So can user feedback. Some organizations, such as colleges, and even states have broached the subject of establishing their own privacy policy regulations – but even if these regulations eventually make it into law, how will they be enforced so that all sites on the ever-changing Internet comply?

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.

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