Policing privacy on the Internet and Facebook

The Seattle TimesSeptember 18, 2013 

The following editorial appeared in the Seattle Times on Monday:

As a good rule of thumb, assume any information posted on social media will be harvested like a veal calf headed for sale on a digital town square.

Last week, the Federal Trade Commission reminded us all of that pipeline in announcing it was looking into Facebook’s new privacy policies.

Those polices – unveiled just before Labor Day weekend, when presumably few would be paying attention – made clear that Facebook considers signing up for its service is de-facto consent to resell users’ data to advertisers.

The FTC, on the other hand, considers that a potential breach of a 2011 regulatory agreement, which requires Facebook to get explicit consent from users. Facebook, which has a troubling record of eroding privacy standards, looks like it tried to slip one past consumers.

Thank goodness someone is looking, because the vast majority of consumers are not. The boilerplate legalese of online contracts is scrolled past, in search of the quick “Agree” button.

Facebook isn’t alone. Since 2011, Google, MySpace and Path social-networking sites all have settled FTC charges that the companies duped consumers regarding privacy policies.

A digital thumbprint is easily left but nearly impossible to erase.

It will get even more difficult to erase with advances in facial-recognition software, which suggest a future in which embarrassing “selfie” photos are instantly matched to LinkedIn business profiles and Facebook “likes” for lingerie manufacturers.

In a Slate essay, writer Amy Webb described her aversion to posting any pictures of her child. Doing so, Webb argues, “is essentially robbing her of a digital adulthood that’s free of bias and presupposition.”

That future is hypothetical. Facebook, and other social-media companies, can ensure a present modicum of privacy. Signing up for a Facebook account is not an invitation to harvest our lives for sale on the town square of digital advertising.

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