Privacy is dead. Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg essentially claimed this to be the case in January 2010 because people have become so comfortable with sharing information. Whether we like it or not, such phrases as "status updates," "Tweets", and "checking in" have become part of our everyday household conversation. Consumers are naturally moving the comfort needle up when it comes to sharing needless information on the Internet; however, this latest obsession with instant information at our fingertips creates dilemmas for companies such as Facebook about how this data is disseminated and whether the proper privacy protections are in place for its end users. Facebook’s user community caused enough of an uproar against the increased complexity of the privacy settings that Facebook recently attempted to simplify its software so users can more easily protect their accounts. These simplified settings are intended to provide users with a better understanding of how to manage their privacy settings; however, the responsibility still remains with the user to initiate the control over their privacy. One thing remains clear: the user is not prompted by Facebook to adjust their settings. The concern for online privacy protection is not a new concept, but with innovative social media websites popping up daily, this issue is certain to be a heavily-debated one.
Google’s latest attempt to join the social media phenomenon is the Google+ project, which connects friends into “circles." The concept is that you have different groups of friends that you want to share information with and others you do not. For example, you may not want to let your boss know what you are doing on a Friday night, but you may want to let your boss know about a fundraising effort you are involved in on Saturday morning. While this might seem like it creates more privacy for the end user, Google’s general terms of service still apply to the Google+ project, which state:
By submitting, posting or displaying the content you give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services. You agree that this license includes a right for Google to make such Content available to other companies, organizations or individuals with whom Google has relationships for the provision of syndicated services, and to use such Content in connection with the provision of those services.
While there are privacy settings that allow a user of Google+ to affect the display of a page and the way it appears to others, there are still countless loopholes that create an avenue for spammers to target the user with unwanted information from their Google profile, which one is required to have as a Google+ user. Undoubtedly, the public’s desire to share information willingly over the Internet will only continue to grow; therefore, privacy concerns are not disappearing. What should be done? Can anything be done? Recently, the U.S. government decided to “check in” on these issues.
In December 2010, the Obama administration said Americans should have a “privacy bill of rights” to help regulate the commercial collection of consumer data online. The question of what type of protections for privacy the original Bill of Rights contains has long been an issue that the U.S. legal landscape has debated. The U.S. Supreme Court, beginning in 1923 and continuing through its recent decisions, has broadly read the “liberty” guarantee of the Fourth Amendment to guarantee a fairly broad right of privacy.
A recently introduced bill from Sens. John Kerry and John McCain would create for the first time a commercial privacy “Bill of Rights." It is the first privacy bill in the Senate in more than a decade. While companies such as Hewlett Packard, Microsoft and eBay support the bill, others such as the Consumer Watchdog, the Center for Digital Democracy, and Privacy Times are concerned about the lack of a "Do Not Track" mechanism, special treatment of social media markers, and the denial of private rights of action against violations.
The bill requires basic Fair Information Practice Principles for all companies that protect personal data both online and offline. As a consumer, one will receive a clearer, timelier notice when personal information is collected. Companies will have to communicate to consumers how they intend to use their information, collect only what they need, and hold data for only as long as they need it for the stated purpose. Under this proposed bill, it will be necessary for companies to develop and implement internal processes that will consider how to protect consumer privacy. Companies will also be encouraged to collaborate with consumer groups to develop industry-specific codes to incorporate and build upon what the proposed bill requires.
The McCain-Kerry proposed bill also has its weaknesses. The proposal does not apply to data mining, surveillance, or any other forms of activity that the government uses to collect and collate Americans’ personal information. There is also a fear that the provisions in the bill that specifically target behavioral advertising might open the door to give Facebook and other social media sites special treatment. This Facebook "loophole” seems deliberately designed to preserve existing and concerning practices such as Facebook’s “Like” button, which can track an individual’s movements around the web by placing cookies on your computer even if you are not logged into Facebook and don’t click the “Like” button. A user would surrender any right to opt out of being tracked by Facebook or Google simply by having an account with them. Along with singling out this type of ad targeting, the safe harbor features currently proposed will continue to provide social media sites such as Facebook and Google+ a significant amount of open reign to collect information (even under data minimization.)
While the Kerry-McCain bill is a step in the right direction toward protecting consumer’s online privacy, it is still concerning that this well-intended bill will not provide more comprehensive rights to users. With the growing demand for more meaningful privacy controls when utilizing social media sites such as Facebook or Google+, the enforceability of the bill, and the lack of a private right of action will still allow these companies to be lenient on privacy restraints.
Is the bill perfect? No. However, with some critical enhancements and an amendment of the bill, it could move consumers closer to critical privacy protections with the flexibility to meet future challenges that new social media websites and many others continue to present.