There is nothing quite like a social media dustup. Most are literal tempests in teapots. Even if the teapot represents 100s of millions of participants, and even if thousands and even millions get all bent out of shape about something, there’s usually not so much as a ripple created in the analog world by events in the rarified world of social networks.
I’m wondering if Facebook will be the first social media network to truly jump into the public consciousness by enlivening the debate about privacy. Kashmir Hill‘s recent post about the possibility that Facebook may have actually broken the law in its recent privacy setting changes is an intriguing look at the evolution from privacy to wherever it is we are going. People who are in the practice of public relations should be especially concerned about the implicit permission versus the intended permission that users of Facebook and other social networks are granting in their participation on the popular sites.
True/Slant reports on the suit by the Electronic Privacy Information Center [EPIC] and other groups just this week alleging that Facebook violated federal law. The complaint asks the Federal Trade Commission to take a look. And, while the FTC has not been a particular friend of privacy in this regard, it did take a nibble out of Gateway when it changed its policy in 2004.
Megan Erickson in her blog this week also focused on another significant aspect of the Facebook case, noting that the company had pitched the privacy settings as giving users more control when the “recommended” settings actually may signify giving up control. She and others report that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg even had some difficulty, allowing his whole profile to go public for a period of time. PC World via Jared Newman gave us this (Facebook Privacy: Zuckerberg’s Profile Unzipped) earlier in the week, based on another True/Slant post.
The principle behind all of this is solid. If I tell you I’m going to keep something private and then later change my policy to make that information public, then I’ve done you wrong. And in that, there is an important caution to public relations professionals — not just the ones who are answering troubling questions on behalf of Facebook and Gateway, but for all of us who are searching for ways to reach our various audiences.
Even in a time when individuals are willing to squander their privacy by appearing on “reality” TV or by revealing TMI on various profile pages, all of us maintain our right to be indignant if the information is used for some corporate gain without our permission. Props to the Public Relations Society of America for taking on anonymous posts in its advocacy program, but it’s time to take the Code one step farther down the path. We must forge a set of standards that address the increasing ability of tools to search the web for personal information and the increasing predilection to put personal information to work to influence those who have not “opted in” to the conversation.
This important ethical issue will only become more complex as situations such as the recent Facebook actions are duplicated across the Web. The continuing, widespread dissemination of personal information is lamented by many, and most have been content to post an indignant comment or just note ”that cow is out of the barn.” Public sharing of private lives has provoked some revisiting of conceptions of privacy, but the mere fact that were are so naively open shouldn’t give license to commercial use of personal information.
The Facebook case and others to follow will set some legal precedents, but the public relations community should move now to address this rapidly evolving challenge.