Table of Contents
Users vs Users
Data and Profit
We Work For You
An Engine of Manipulation
An Open Model
Case Study: ‘Timothy Pilgrim vs The World’
Conclusion and Solutions
“Social Media has grown rapidly in both its proliferation and in its potential application. In the 1990s, chat sites like AOL and HTML blogs were the stars. Now, sites like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and Linkedin play an everyday part in billions of lives. The roles and functions of these sites often overlap in ways where many wouldn't find a difference, yet in the fine print and boardrooms motivations between companies can contrast like day and night. This paper aims to compare differing approaches to the handling of private individual’s data by some of the social media giants.”
Humans are a social species with an innate need for community (Gray, 2015). The internet - and social media in particular - provides a seemingly perfect means of instantly broadcasting any opinion or piece of information with the world. In the beginning, social media was merely the sharing of personal stories, jokes and opinions on politics and entertainment but now users share such mundanities as “commute times and coffee temperatures” (Claypoole, 2015). This leads many to feel a sense of empowerment (Pierson, 2012). This empowerment escalates to social justice movements, up to the terrifying online lynch-mobs described in books such as Jon Ronson’s “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” (Ronson, 2015).
Online communication has grown rapidly in both its proliferation and in its potential application. In the 1990s, chat sites like AOL and HTML blogs were the stars. Now, sites like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and LinkedIn play an everyday part in billions of lives. The roles and functions of these sites often overlap in ways where many wouldn't find a difference, yet in the fine print and boardrooms motivations between companies can contrast like day and night. This paper aims to compare differing approaches to the handling of private individual’s data by some of the social media giants͘
Users vs Users
Social media can provide unethical individuals and groups a way of shaming or ‘doxing’ (the collecting and broadcasting of another’s private information, The Economist, 2014) those with whom they disagree͘ Beyond these issues, classmates can frequently ‘cyber-bully’ one another, burglars and identity-thieves can collect valuable info about their victim’s vacation schedule, health-records, income- level or loot potential (Claypoole, 2015) and careers may even change course due to employers finding disreputable content on their employee’s profiles͘ There are many cases where social media transgressions have inspired terminations of employees with perfect work records (Clark, 2010). In the U.S. this problem alone has led to over twenty states writing legislation to prevent employers from requesting disclosure of their employee’s private social media accounts and passwords (Steeves, 2015). In these ways and more, a person’s post history, photos or personal details can be used against them as direct ammunition.
Social media empires have the ability to raise ethical puzzles in a more indirect fashion, but with far more data and resources at their disposal. Sites can be quite helpful in recommending options when other users are abusive (Humanrightscommission.vic.gov.au, 2014), working closely with law enforcement and offering detailed reporting and flagging options. When the site itself is the problem however, options don’t extend far beyond complaining directly to the offending site or lodging a complaint with government departments such as the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (Hogben, 2014).
Data and Profit
By using social media, individuals run the risk of being “portrayed as cattle generating money for platform owners” (Heyman et al., 2014). Craig Spiezle, the executive director of advocacy group Online Trust Alliance admits that the primary goal of social media corporations is to sell advertising (Acohido, 2011). The graph below shows recent and forecasted advertising revenue of the top earners, with Facebook taking ~65% of the market and a whopping $21.43 billion expected in the current financial year͘ Twitter’s awarded a distant second place by comparison͘(Source: eMarketer, 2015)
“...such as the operating system, hardware version, device settings, file and software names and types, battery and signal strength, and device identifiers (including specific geographic locations, ͙, the name of your mobile operator or ISP, browser type,..., mobile phone number and IP address)” (Facebook.com, 2015).
At what point does this data-mining go too far? When should Facebook’s sale of such swathes of information be considered simple greed? Is $23+ billion necessary to make “it possible to operate our companies and provide free services to people around the world” (Facebook.com, 2015)?
We Work For You
In the privacy policies of Twitter and Facebook there are several points of what could be construed as vague placation, and perhaps deliberate obfuscation. Leaving aside the billions of dollars in profits mentioned above, they seem determined to show that their main alliance isn’t with advertisers, but with their users. This is demonstrated in phrases like -:
“We want our advertising to be as relevant and interesting as the other information you find on our Services.”
“When we have location information, we use it to tailor our Services for you and others...” “We also use information we have to provide shortcuts and suggestions to you.” “We are passionate about creating engaging and customized experiences for people.”
Similarly, Twitter writes -:
“Our Services are primarily designed to help you share information with the world”.
“We collect and use your information below to provide our Services and to measure and improve them over time.”
An Engine of Manipulation
Technological literacy is also a factor in questioning the ethics of social media corporations.
Social media sites, like casinos “built without sunlight or clocks so as to encourage your further play” (Claypoole, 2015) play an integral part in the data mining industry. Their architecture can be structured in such tantalizing and emotionally compelling ways as to be able to extract the highest possible amount of user input. This input is then sold to, and potentially abused by advertisers.
An Open Model
“We take protecting your privacy seriously.”
“Your Private Information Is Never for Sale.”
“Our goal in developing our privacy practices is to allow your participation to remain as anonymous as you choose.”
“Reddit Will Not Disclose Your Information Unless Required by Law.”
“We do not sell or otherwise give access to any information collected about our users to any third party.”
“...we will only share your personal data with your consent.”
Reddit’s open-source nature is not without its downsides...
“We do not have control over third parties that may collect and store data independently from reddit without our permission and without following our rules.”
A Case Study: ‘Timothy Pilgrim vs The World’
In 2012, Australian Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim was granted new powers to enforce data breaches by social media organisations (McDonald, 2012). In a Computerworld interview he stressed that social media sites have -:
“an obligation for organisations to be much clearer about how they are collecting information and what they are going to do about it...Often when we’re dealing with social media sites we do find that individuals don’t necessarily have the strongest privacy settings in place.”
In his 2011/2012 Official Annual Report Message Commissioner Pilgrim explained that-:
“I believe that peoples' sensitivities about the handling of their personal information are being heightened as they transact more online͙ it is also incumbent upon them to actively take on board, wherever possible, the issues raised by their customers and, in situations where they decide not to, to explain why.”
The legislative change does not solely target social media corporations. The commissioner mentions the United Kingdom’s News of the World scandal as another breach example (Pilgrim, 2012).
Privacy complaints rose by 11% in that year compared to 2011 before it. The commissioner wrote that the true figure is likely higher. Security specialists had led him to believe that there were many more breaches occurring than what had been reported to the OAIC (Office of the Australian Information Commissioner).
Changes made to the Privacy Act 1988 allow the OAIC to act without a complaint having been made, and provide the power to enforce penalties of “up to $340,000 for individuals or $1.7 million for companies” (Sendall, 2014). To a company like Facebook, how concerning is a fine which at its maximum is less than 1% of that year’s advertising income?
The OAIC is clearly acknowledging a need for individuals and companies to be more wary of the risks associated with data sharing online. The changes to legislation seem to be a step in the right direction, but only time will tell whether the penalties are severe enough to deter slippery data-miners and corporate giants.
Conclusion and Solutions
With an increasing prevalence of social media applications and user numbers, there will be an increased, parallel incentive for social media outlets. Despite many nations and organisations keeping a watchful eye on these sites, they are still letting them record anything they want about their users so long as they say so in their - mostly-unread - privacy policies (Morrison, 2015). If a legal protection doesn’t yet exist, individuals need to fight back, and precedents must be set.
Lawmakers have had to evolve their thinking to protect the privacy and rights of individual social media users and advocates must continue to raise public awareness of the encroachments of big data miners. Individuals also need to take some personal responsibility. This begins with being able to stay aware of the options available (how to delete accounts/posts, configure privacy/security/advertising settings, etc.); this ends with being able to say enough is enough, and - where the evidence is overwhelming - calling out greed for what it is.
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