Privacy Wars: Will Facebook and Instragram Become Online Privacy’s Most Notable Opponents?

by Latoya Livingston on December 23, 2012

Facebook is Watching You - Logical ExtremesLast Tuesday, Instragram got a very rude awakening.  The online photo sharing and social media company used its blog to announce new user policies that would in effect give it and its parent-company, Facebook, Inc., the right to sell users’ uploaded photos without payment or notifications.  Within minutes, the Internet was afire with angry bloggers decrying Instagram’s drastic policy shift and what many see as a violation of its user’s trust.

What did they do?

Well, here is the provision that started the uproar:

“To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, you agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you.”

Any social media user can tell you that there is nothing ‘interesting’ about being bombarded with ads at every click of the mouse.  Online advertisers went from the somewhat easy to ignore banner ads to loud commercials that automatically play if you happen to enter a site or click on an article.  It’s getting to a point that some advertisers make you type in a word before you can bypass their ad.  The thought of a company being able to use your photo to help with this assault is beyond annoying; it’s offensive.

Since it went public on February 1, 2012, Facebook has been desperate to stave off the steady decline of its stock.  Analysts were skeptical of the price of the initial public offering when it was first revealed.  They wondered how Facebook would monetize its massive impact and create a company that was of benefit to its advertisers.  Well, it seems that through Instragram, the two companies thought that they finally found their gold brick road.  What they didn’t expect was the tremendous backlash from users that saw the new public policy an affront from a company that they trusted with their memories.

Ah, you shouldn’t have

Personally, when I first heard of Instagram’s new policy that was supposed to go into effect on January 16th, 2013, I went straight to my smart phone, emailed myself all of the pictures that I wanted to keep, deleted them from my Instragram account, and deleted the account itself.  Although Instragram has since, as a result of its users’ rage, reversed its decision to sell users’ pictures without payment and notifications, it was the thought that counted for me.  Yes, Instragram is providing a service free of charge and needs to find a way to make money in order to thrive, but when users agree to open up their lives to the world and use its service as a tool to do so, it has a responsibility to its users, especially if the users signed up with a certain expectation of privacy.

Some might argue that when you use social media and put your personal information on the Web, a person shouldn’t expect that any privacy exists.  Once something is put on the Internet, it can’t be recaptured or undone.  Yes, but a line should be drawn when a company intends to use your information for something totally different than what you expected, without your permission, and in the end get paid for your content.  It seemed innocuous, at least to Instragram; however, what if your minor child was in the picture that was taken?  What if it was a special event that you would never want sold to the highest bidder like a staged reenactment of a ‘private moment?’  Shouldn’t the users have control of how their memories are immortalized, whether in a family album or in an ad for a can of soup?

This is yet another way that some companies are putting their bottom line ahead of their users, which might in the end dissuade people from adopting broadband.  Fun apps aren’t so fun anymore when they’re running rampant with your reasonable expectation of privacy.

Upping the Ante

This latest debacle comes after Facebook announced that is planning on “revamping” its own privacy policy, which in the end will give users a lot less say over how much of their information and page is exposed to non-friends.   On December 3, 2012, Facebook announced that it was going to allow users to vote on policy changes, including privacy controls, for one week via a voting app.  Among the changes was a limitation on a user’s ability to control who could send them messages.

Following the vote and the fodder over Instragram, Facebook went even further.  The company announced a few days ago that it will be experimenting with the ability to allow strangers pay to have their correspondences delivered directly to users’ Facebook messaging inbox.  So, if being listed on a message with 100 other people and getting a notification every time someone comments on that message isn’t annoying enough, Facebook  may soon give access to your message box to whomever who is willing to pay their $1 fee.

Chipping away at online privacy

There has been a steady decline to Facebook users’ privacy over the past few years.  In 2009, the site made previously private data such as friend lists and profile photos public by default. The following year, users were automatically opted in to a new “Instant Personalization” feature that shared private information with outside companies.  And then there was the timeline feature, which allows posts dating back to the time that you signed up for Facebook visible to anyone with the time and interest to go through your wall.  Facebook also added the ability for people to tag you in pictures without your approval, unless you go through your privacy settings and click a box that says that you have to approve every tag that you didn’t make yourself.  That party you went to back in college that your frat brother decided to upload and tag you in?  It’s now available for the world to see, and Facebook will own it even if you delete it – not to mention the people who may see it before you do.  What if you are a working professional with only one page where you’ve added real friends, business contacts, and family?  You could have a case where ‘what happened in Vegas’ not only didn’t stay in Vegas, but was broadcast for your family, colleagues, and potential new employers.

It’s gotten to a point that if users aren’t vigilant, their entire life – every random status or picture that they’re tagged in – could be viewed in perpetuity.   I, for one, am a strong proponent of social media; however, not like this.  A user should never feel trapped in fear over what Facebook has accumulated over the years.  We as users need to draw a line in the sand and say enough is enough, or they’ll make using the Internet so dangerous and undesirable that none of us will be digitally connected, in this way, again.

    • Latoya LivingstonLatoya Livingston is a Washington-D.C.-based attorney with years of legal experience working in the private and public sector. Currently, Attorney Livingston serves as a Senior Attorney and the Earle K. Moore Fellow at MMTC.

 

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