Facebook & Google Held to Different Privacy Standards than Legacy Companies

By 1stFive Archives
Cover image for  article: Facebook & Google Held to Different Privacy Standards than Legacy Companies

Chapter 21 of Jack Myers' book Hooked Up: A New Generation's Surprising Take on Sex, Politics and Saving the World focuses on the privacy, trust in corporations, and piracy among the Hooked Up Generation -- born 1991-95 and the first generation to grow up with the Internet . This is a generation that will emerge as our next great generation of leaders and that will define issues and realities for generations to come. Hooked Up was published in 2012 and is winner of the International Book Award for Youth Issues and finalist for the USA Book Award for Pop Culture.

While a majority (74 percent) of Internet Natives born 1991-1995, who take a position on the value of corporations, agree that they make important contributions to society, only 20 percent believe they make many valuable contributions, while 26 percent say corporations are destructive to society, according to MyersBizNet research. Of those who believe corporations in general are destructive, most judge Internet companies Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Twitter by a different standard. Three-quarters of those with negative attitudes toward corporations believe these large Internet companies should NOT be judged by the same standards as other corporations, and they do not subject them to the same negative pre-judgments.

This was evident in the online uprising against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) in early 2012. Congressional efforts to enact laws that would curtail online piracy and copyright infringement were supported by most leading entertainment companies and had broad bipartisan support in Congress. That support collapsed when Google, Facebook, Reddit, Wikipedia and other sites protested and activated their user bases to speak out against the laws. Google alone generated seven million petition signatures in one day, and Wikipedia went black for a day of protest.

Members of the Hooked Up Generation love interacting with one another over social platforms, and they are determined to do whatever it takes to ensure that their favorite sites remain open. Each day, millions of students take advantage of free online sites but are aware of the legal consequences of piracy. Andy Jensen, a senior at California State University, considered taking his YouTube videos down if one or both of the bills passed. "I heard that you could get in trouble just for using the wrong background music or even having a TV show playing in the background of your YouTube video. I'm a poor college student and really can't afford to pay whatever exorbitant fine they choose to slap on me." To help with the cause, Andy signed an anti-SOPA petition and then posted the link to the petition on his Facebook wall so that friends could sign it as well.

Like Andy, thousands of college students alerted their friends to SOPA and PIPA, either by linking to petitions or blacking out portions of their Facebook pages. Although there's little clarity about the actual legal consequences that concern Andy, a number of students took the protest effort a step further by asking their college administrators to black out official university websites. Colleges such as Syracuse University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) listened to concerned students and obliged their website black-out requests. University officials at MIT claimed that the passing of SOPA and PIPA would result in large sections of the university's official website being shut down. They were especially concerned about online students who access most of their lectures and assignments over the MIT website. The concern was that much of this content would be liable under SOPA.

Within a week, the acts had gone from almost certain passage to a very public and ignominious defeat. When it came to established corporate and political forces against leading digital sites, the Internet proved a far more trusted and powerful force. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid responded to the protests with an indefinite suspension of the SOPA-PIPA vote. Support for these bills remains strong in both the Senate and the House, but representatives have demonstrated a willingness to step back and consider changes. This development represents a major success for college students and other protesters who have worked so hard to safeguard the online freedom of expression they currently enjoy.

The anti-SOPA protests provide tangible proof of the importance of social networking to today's college students. Most students view social media as highly enriching and are willing to fight to ensure that it remains available in the future. They enjoy the many opportunities provided by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr and dozens of other social networking sites. And if the millions of Tweets, Facebook status updates and YouTube videos concerning social justice movements such as "Occupy Wall Street" and "Stop American Censorship" are any indication, students are making full use of social media tools.

As far as college students are concerned, social media and social justice are both here to stay and the powerful influence of the leading Internet-based companies in defining and advancing social causes is a direct result of the trust the Hooked Up Gen has in them.

Consumer Trust

Consumer trust is a huge asset and advantage for these companies as they plan their marketing and strategic business decisions. It's a dual-edged sword, though. Trust can be quickly eroded when corporate decisions are made that run counter to the standards and expectations of these same consumers. For example, Yahoo's distinctive position with young people is eroding as the site struggles internally and externally with its identity, focus, purpose and core marketing message.

Achieving and maintaining trust among Internet Pioneers will yield not only financial rewards but enormous competitive advantage, political clout and social influence.

Privacy is one of the key ways this advantage may be manifested. Because Facebook has continued to serve its core college-age audience even as it has expanded across all demographics and to a global user base, this audience will continue to serve Facebook and support the company's somewhat confrontational approach to privacy issues. Facebook alone is positioned to defend society against almost certain restrictive governmental privacy controls. Internet Natives are likely to be the most active voices against these controls, but if not for their trust in Facebook, they might be advocates of greater privacy regulation.

"Politicians, regulators and advocacy groups do not understand privacy. They do not understand how sophisticated privacy management is or how complicated the technology controls are. Facebook built into its platform most of the privacy settings and controls that advocacy groups and regulators argued for. Once we built and implemented them, the same advocacy groups perceived them as too difficult for consumers to use."
Paul Adams

It seems inevitable that some politicians will identify personal privacy as an opportune political hot potato and again launch a campaign to impose greater Internet privacy controls. If sites are heavily regulated with privacy controls, a great opportunity to bring people together with other people and businesses based on their expressed interests, needs and desires could be missed. Political opportunism could, in the short term, derail many of the most promising emerging opportunities of the Internet.

The current controls, all self-imposed, are reasonably extensive, but Adams is "worried that every single action will require opt-in authorization. The web could become unusable if there is a pop-up every time you click with terms and conditions you have to approve."

Under the current self-regulations, users provide a one-time authorization and can rescind that approval. Adams argues that Facebook users are very sophisticated in their understanding of privacy issues and their rights. According to our study, 93 percent of Internet Pioneers express concern about how much personal information they share online, and are sufficiently sophisticated to protect themselves. "They do care about privacy and consequences," confirms Adams.

"They understand privacy and have studied it carefully. They understand that applying aggressive privacy controls can isolate you from your friends. They are sophisticated in their use of privacy tools and understand how to post to selected friends or parents. Teens realize the benefits of sharing with more people, the replies they might get, the social feedback they get. Even young kids understand that 'liking' is in their control and has meaning and value that changes with different uses. People are focused and deliberate about who they friend and how they interact with each friend."
Paul Adams

Evan Schweitzer, a college freshman from New York City, remembers "in the beginning of Facebook, I bought into being friends with everybody. Back then it was cool to have 5,000 friends. Now it's not so cool. It's huge, but it is invading and I like having my privacy."

Facebook Communities

Older Internet users are, according to several studies, actually lessconcerned about privacy than Internet Pioneers, and they are also less competent to manage the privacy settings that sites like Facebook and Google provide. "A lot of good can come from people opening up and sharing," Adams believes.

There have been privacy fears and backlash dating back to the introduction of the printing press and even the alphabet and the written word, if we can go back that far. It is reasonable to believe that people were concerned about maintaining the privacy of their stories when the first scribe began writing those stories down. If something could be written down, it could be held against you. With the advent of the printing press, the printed word distributed to many was a clear invasion of a person's right to control to whom, how and when he delivered his message.

Privacy concerns are not new, but Adams believes we are returning to a time not unlike when people lived in villages and communities of 150 to 200 people and everyone knew each other's business. "It was in each other's nature to share and be open," he points out. Social networks are enabling people to identify and communicate with small groups that they identify and control.

Internet Natives' Relationship with Facebook

The average Facebook user, according to Facebook research, has an average of six groups with 10 to 15 members each––family, friends from activities, school, past jobs and schools, their community, etc. The Hooked Up Generation (born 1991-1995) tend to have more than six discreet groups and more people in each of those groups. More than 90 percent of the Hooked Up Gen today are on Facebook, with an average 415 "friends" each, compared to the average 150 friends among the total Facebook user base. More than 20 percent have 500-plus friends and only 4 percent have fewer than 50 friends.

The most active Hooked Up Gen Facebook users with 500-plus friends are more concentrated among females and Black/African Americans; they are less concentrated in California but otherwise evenly dispersed throughout the rest of the country. 71 percent of Internet Pioneer Facebook users say they personally know at least 90 percent of their Facebook friends, and only 5 percent personally know less than one-third of their friends. This runs counter to data on average social network users collected by Facebook. That research, says Adams, suggests that the average person can manage only about 150 friends. "Once you are over 150 you forget the names of your friends and even how you know them," he says.

Internet Natives, with an average of more than 400 friends, fall into a group that Adams believes will be early adapters of the tools being developed for curating and managing large circles of friends.

Product development at Facebook, Google Plus and other social networks is focusing on helping their users manage and organize communications with independent groups of friends. Circles and communities will become much more important as people separate out groups of friends who don't know each other and may have different interests. People want to communicate differently with friends, work colleagues and families. It doesn't work to converge these disparate groups in a single blended online world.

As Facebook members age, it's inevitable that the size of their networks will grow as they maintain connections with people who become less involved in their day-to-day lives. It's not human nature to "unfriend" those with whom they have had a previous relationship, as Facebook becomes the only resource available to maintain all those contacts. Social networks will therefore grow over time beyond the 150 average, and Internet Pioneers' social networks will quickly exceed five hundred and more. They will have a network of people that is too big to remember and deal with, so a priority for them will be curation tools and database management resources. They will seek out better ways to direct their communications to smaller discreet groups, and to manage different messages for different groups of friends.

A strategic priority for Facebook is to maintain a balance between user demands for greater use of personal information and advocacy groups' demands for greater privacy controls that restrict use of this information.

Facebook began its extraordinary sprint to the top echelons of digital native companies by targeting college students, and it continues to achieve its greatest success with this group, many of whom now consider Facebook to be the single most important resource for their communications needs.

"I totally understand the arguments against Facebook but I have friends all over the world from theater camp. If not for Facebook how would I stay in touch with them? It's a pretty big deal. It's easy to find out what people are doing. I don't have to put a lot of effort into knowing what's going on with my friends because it pops up."
Laura Schwartz
18-year-old student

As the now popular lore goes, Facebook was created in a college dormitory. While the movie The Social Network dramatized the story of Mark Zuckerberg and thefacebook, Facebook is still appealing to college students for many of the reasons that Zuckerberg originally imagined. It is the best social network because Facebook resembles real life,if for no other reason than because so many people are on it. Students communicate on it as if they were in a cafeteria and share pictures and exist in a sort of dual universe in which it sometimes seems that if something doesn't happen on Facebook, it's not real. Even those students who may not prefer it to other social networks or who may not be active on any social network are on Facebook simply because everyone else is. It is self-perpetuating. And everyone is on it.

Facebook remains a place for students to gather and socialize and share, and it remains an integral part of college life. Facebook's utility and universality has allowed it to evolve into a tool for information gathering and sharing. Colleges are even using Facebook to recruit students. To stay relevant, Facebook is constantly looking to add features and functionality to improve the user experience. Facebook has expanded far beyond its college roots, but the DNA of the company as a social network bringing students closer together remains. Facebook is constantly updating its user interface and has expanded it to incorporate a Timeline feature that retains every update, photo, shared experience and all other activities users include in their Facebook profiles. And Facebook has adapted to an increasingly mobile generation.

"These days, it's about reaching students where they are––which is mostly (but not always) on their cell phones or laptops," wrote Bruce Horovitz in USA Today. Facebook is still in college dormitories, but it has evolved to travel with the student as part of everyday life. The company works hard to remain useful and universal in an ever-changing and hyper-competitive world. So far, it's working.

Google and the Privacy Conundrum

Google is used every day by even more people than Facebook, and Google is an embedded part of the basic daily language of people around the world. Google, through its multiple technology platforms, has access to and stores an extraordinary wealth of information and insight into the daily lives of its users.

In March 2012, Google consolidated its privacy policies for sixty Google products and services into one. On the surface, this appears to be a consumer-friendly act intended to simplify the cumbersome process of downloading and reading privacy policies. The full Google Privacy Policy is published in the addendum for your own easy reference (and as a capsule for comparison as it changes over time.) Google is trusted by its users to protect them and protect their interests.

But technology guru and blogger Shelly Palmer expressed serious concern about the consolidated privacy policy.

"I don't think any single thought about the aggregation of data or the use of technology has ever made me as uncomfortable as this announcement. On its best day, with every ounce of technology the U.S. government could muster, it could not know a fraction as much about any of us as Google does now. But now is not what I'm worried about. I'm not even worried about this decade. Just imagine a database that could automatically determine what you are most likely going to have for dinner after your bowling league Tuesday night, where you are going to have it, who it will be with, whether you are feeling good or have a cold, if you and your wife are fighting, how your day was at work, what you are thinking about buying, who is helping you with your decisions about it, what chronic illnesses you are dealing with, what meds you are on, etc, etc, etc. And this isn't even the scary stuff."
Shelly Palmer

What scares Palmer is the "existence of yet-uninvented ways to manipulate data for good and, inadvertently, for bad. I'm worried about the good intentions that pave the road to hell," he exclaims.

The debates over privacy protection reflect a conundrum––how can data best be protected when more and more information that has always been personal and private is voluntarily shared on platforms that are fundamentally public? How can consumers best understand the implications of sharing their data and clicking "I Agree" when they haven't even read the privacy policies to which they are agreeing? Will companies like Facebook and Google use and misuse the trust that Internet Pioneers have placed in them, and will that trust erode as a result? If trust is misused and privacy rights are reinforced and regulated, will the value of these platforms and others be diminished?

Few issues are more critical for the future of the Internet than privacy. Facebook and Google will be the dominant forces in advancing the case for access to consumer information and limited consumer control over that information. We now know, from SOPA and PIPA, that the forces of government and other large corporations are helpless by comparison. Whether Google and Facebook respect and honor the trust their users have placed in them will determine whether Palmer's fear is well-placed or overstated.

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