Thumbs down for Google, Facebook Personal Privacy Concerns

In a week when Facebook are expanding their 'like' button to cover the entire internet, the heads of the data protection authorities of several countries wrote to Google CEO Eric Schmidt to deliver a thumbs down about the privacy rights of the world’s citizens.
Written by Oliver Marks, Contributor

In a week when Facebook are expanding their 'like' button to cover the entire internet, the heads of the data protection authorities of several countries wrote to Google CEO Eric Schmidt to deliver a thumbs down about the privacy rights of the world’s citizens.

Jennifer Stoddart, Privacy Commissioner of Canada and the heads of the data protection authorities in France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain and the United Kingdom wrote to Schmidt to formally express their concerns about privacy issues related to Google Buzz:

...In essence, you took Google Mail (Gmail), a private, one-to-one web-based e-mail service, and converted it into a social networking service, raising concern among users that their personal information was being disclosed.  Google automatically assigned users a network of “followers” from among people with whom they corresponded most often on Gmail, without adequately informing Gmail users about how this new service would work or providing sufficient information to permit informed consent decisions. This violated the fundamental principle that individuals should be able to control the use of their personal information.

Users instantly recognized the threat to their privacy and the security of their personal information, and were understandably outraged. To your credit, Google apologized and moved quickly to stem the damage.

While your company addressed the most privacy-intrusive aspects of Google Buzz in the wake of this public protest and most recently (April 5, 2010) you asked all users to reconfirm their privacy settings, we remain extremely concerned about how a product with such significant privacy issues was launched in the first place.  We would have expected a company of your stature to set a better example.  Launching a product in “beta” form is not a substitute for ensuring that new services comply with fair information principles before they are introduced...

Also citing Google Street View privacy concerns, they then requested that "like all organizations entrusted with people’s personal information" Google should incorporate fundamental privacy principles directly into the design of new online services.  That means, at a minimum: •    collecting and processing only the minimum amount of personal information necessary to achieve the identified purpose of the product or service; •    providing clear and unambiguous information about how personal information will be used to allow users to provide informed consent; •    creating privacy-protective default settings; •    ensuring that privacy control settings are prominent and easy to use; •    ensuring that all personal data is adequately protected, and •    giving people simple procedures for deleting their accounts and honouring their requests in a timely way.

Meanwhile a lot of people have indicated that they would like to be able to use a 'dislike' button on Facebook, but it seems the online world we live in is geared up to register pleasure only, and to then subsequently supply advertising messaging to users about topics they've expressed interest in. Twitter has followed Facebook in shedding their developer ecosystem to compete with them and rolling out advertising, but Ning, which already has a 'pay to turn off the advertising' model has decided to start charging for use of their online content management/community platform.

Your rights as an online citizen seem certain to be legislated for by the European Union and consortiums of politicians around the world with the intent of protecting your privacy: the letter to Google's Schmidt is an example of the sort of muscle flexing which is starting to be demonstrated.

The reality is that by the time these (probably ham fisted) rules and regulations are in place, the whole online world will have moved on as advertising messaging causes the 'social media' fad to jump the shark.

The early days of email were similar: it was a hugely valuable and efficient communication medium between those who got how to use it, just like Twitter was in its early days. As more and more people figured out how to use it the spam started and we are now at a crisis point with everyone forced to wade through a fire hose of messages to find the important stuff.

Setting up email filters became necessary to triage volume, and people set up private addresses for their important contacts.

As the 'social' tools mutate and scale up we are seeing a similar filtering crisis build up. The prize for the suppliers of these 'free' to you services are marketing dollars to influence you on a personal contextual level, as a new (and rather cosy) Neilsen Report about Facebook  "Advertising Effectiveness: Understanding the Value of a Social Media Impression" demonstrates.

“Social ads” that contain social advocacy are a lightweight form of endorsement on ads, and can drive increased brand lift while delivering reach on a similar scale as paid campaigns

chuckles Neilsen happily, forgetting the advertising rule about overloading and polluting the messaging channel over time, as has happened with many previous mediums.

From an internal Enterprise 2.0 collaboration perspective these rapid social changes in the way we are marketed to and influenced has a huge bearing on the way employees and partners work together. Governance and desired usage patterns around workflow to drive to well defined business goals are muddied by the ability to use similar internet and mobile tools to personally interact with your world in a self indulgent way.

A possible benefit of the coming government legislation - which will hopefully limit the powers and penetration without permission of some of the more aggressive online hustlers - will inform workplace governance models and also sober up some of the more irrationally exuberant 'reinvent the world in their own image' influencers.

We are going through a huge ramping up of commercialization of your internet and mobile experiences, and unlike previous rich communication mediums such as TV and radio, like telephone cold calls we will be increasingly bombarded with interaction requests through our work and social life interaction tools with little differentiation.

Formalizing the difference between these two mediums in order to get work done and remain focused  continues to be a challenge.

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