Google And Facebook: Opt-In Is Coming

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As Facebook gets sued, and Google faces government criticism, eWEEK Europe says the inevitable result will be regulations that make the value of user data clearer

In Canada a clsss action law suite claims Facebook breached its users’ privacy. And in various countries, Google still faces criticism for taking Wi-Fi data with its Street View cars. The end result of this will be regulations on what social networks can do with our data – and how they present that choice to us.

The class action suit alleges that Facebook breaches privacy, by operating what Tony Merchant, of Merchant Law Group, LLP. describes as a “bait and switch” process. “The bait is that they wanted to be able to do demographic sales targeting, and the switch is that to do that, they needed to get into people’s personal information,” Merchant said, according to the Toronto Sun.

In late 2009, Facebook made changes that effecitvely set the default on the site so users’ information would be shared, even if they didn’t explicitly share it. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg initially dismissed the ciriticism, questioned how important proviacy was to users, but eventually acknowledged the issue and Facebook changed again giving users – it says – more explicit control of their data.

Google, meanwhile, grabbed a lot of data from unsecured Wi-Fi networks, and initially said it all happened by accident – but now is having to take it more seriously, and is handing over the data, as it faces possible investigation by Scotland Yard, and government investigations elsewhere.

The cases are very different, but the common thread is that data which users didn’t consider valuable, or didn’t even know they were sharing, potentially had a lot of value to the web giants that ended up holding it.

The value of user data – and the need to stop its abuse – has long been recognised in areas such as physical junk mail and email and  phone spam. The UK’s Data Protection Act, in principle, would cover the misuse of personal data, whether acquired knowingly or accidentally.

But users don’t always realise what they are getting into – so we think governments are likely to step in to regulate. This means essentially that sites could be banned from any sort of targetted advertising unless the user has explicitly opted in to recieving it.

Understandably, Google is not happy with the idea, arguing it would just make the whole web unusable. Facebook, too would be less than keen.

Their arguments sound like the kind of thing that a marketing company mailer might have said a few years ago when told not to send junk mail to unsuspecting people.

The big difference, of course, is that Google – and to a lesser extent Facebook – actually provide undeniable massive social benefits. Think of Google Maps, Google Apps, and the Android operating system. On Facebook’s side… well, there’s the ability to find old friends (and then try to shake them off), provide a user interface to web sharing that even your granny can use, and a space for teens to goof off (mostly) harmlessly.

These are benefits, true, but fundamentally, they are being paid for by user data which people are sharing unawarely.

We need to move to a situation where the value exchange is made more explicit. When I use Google Maps on an Android phone to find where I am meeting my friend, the benefit there is so great, I’d happily pay for it by seeing and ignoring an ad for an upscale restaurant next door (though long term, I can’t see that actually paying for the whole apparatus of Maps and Android).

Opt-ins might be a hassle for the social giants. They would also raise their costs, and reduce their revenues – so they could mean we all get fewer goodies back from them.

But things will certainly move that way – and on balanc,e if it makes us all more aware, then it is good.

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