Google, Facebook, MySpace; privacy rule breakers or trend makers?

The major social networking sites have all been fined for improper use of private data; is that a trend that should be ringing alarm bells or a sideshow for the paranoid and uninitiated?
Written by John Fontana, Contributor

MySpace Wednesday got a privacy smack in its shrinking face from the Federal Trade Commission and will have to spend the next 20 years undergoing regular privacy assessments (will MySpace be around that long?).

Sound familiar?

Facebook and Google are under similar FTC sanctions - 20 years of privacy assessments and other oversight - due to privacy violations involving the mounds of personal data they collect from their users.

In the Facebook case, users were told data was private, but behind the scenes was shared repeatedly. For Google, it was potentially sensitive personal information disclosed without the user's knowledge. And the search giant is double-dipping with an impending fine for bypassing Safari browser privacy settings.

It all started in 2010 with the FTC's first-ever social network smackdown. Twitter was ordered to establish a security program and face monitoring for 10 years after misleading consumers about privacy.

Detect a pattern here?

Regardless of a person's views on the down side, dangers or lack thereof connected to social networking, there is a reasonable expectation that the game is played by the set of published rules. Even if the players themselves don't fully understand them.

More than a billion people have rushed head long into social networking and it seems understandable that some are stopping to ask questions.

Today they are mostly government agencies, privacy advocates, and a sub-set of end-users.

Gen X and other social networkers need only look as far as the financial projections on Facebook's impending IPO to realize that their personal data has a value they can tuck in their virtual wallets.

At the current rate of privacy drain, the next generation of start-up services will be lining up motivated users hellbent to buy back their anonymity.

In the MySpace case, the FTC said the company had shared its users' personal information with advertisers and neglected to disclose that fact to its end-users.

Like Google and Facebook, MySpace has personal information users willingly post on their pages including age and gender along with hobbies, personal endeavors and other date. It is information advertisers covet. And it's information with the potential to corrupt as fast as it adds rows of zeros to revenue numbers.

In fact, it's an arms, legs, head, shoulders, knees and toes race among social sites - where breaking the rules appears to be one of the rules.

Is end-user fatigue coming down the pike?

Potentially. A recent story by Consumer Reports showed 25% of the respondents said they falsified information in their profiles to protect their identity. That number was up 10% from two years ago.

While the Consumer Reports article sparked much debate on the value of social networks, the 25% number shows that at least people are considering the consequences of their personal data dispensing.

Wholesale government intervention to rescue the weary (or to enrage those willing to share-and-share-alike) likely isn't the answer. Ultimately judgment, and norms for social networking, will come from end-users and their actions.

In Europe, for example, consumers need to be alerted before their data is collected, and users have the right to see and alter their information.  Those shifts are cultural as much as regulatory.

And frankly, those rules don't sound oppressive.

Understandably, social networking and how it relates to privacy is a work in progress.

Social sites themselves are changing their ways based on feedback. For example, Facebook has proclaimed it will offer users greater access to records of their past activity.

But given history, can we trust what they say as compared to what they do?

Privacy advocates are putting heat on government agencies to protect consumers. But are they merely brewing a cauldron of fear and government control of the Internet?

There is no denying that privacy data these days is more often finding its way into awkward places and the wrong hands.

We can talk about MySpace, Facebook and Google. We can talk about the transparent paper privacy policies get written on. We can look at the recent Twitter password exposure or any number of password hacks.

The fact is people's private data is leaking like the sink in a rest-stop bathroom. But the question is, do the masses care enough to do anything about it?

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