Consumers Push Back, Stand UP for Privacy

By Jon Fox
Consumer Advocate

With the recent flurry of privacy related events as 2012 came to an end, the Mayan apocalypse was clearly the least of consumers’ worries. Facebook, Instagram, the FTC and even (now)former C.I.A. Director David Petraeus all drew the spotlight on online privacy. Among these different stories, one message was clear – the public cares about privacy. We like free services and online Apps, but we also care about our privacy and don’t expect to check our rights at the door, or login page.

The latest corporate bad-guy to fall afoul of users was Instagram, the Facebook-owned photo sharing app. Online users of the free service were up in arms over proposed changes to its terms of service that explicitly gave the company rights to sell users photos without consent or compensation. Not surprisingly, some of the over 100 million Instagram users were not happy with the prospect of changing their status from customers to unpaid photographers for the world's largest stock photo agency.

In a blog post, Instagram’s co-founder Kevin Systrom quickly recognized their mistake, stating “it was interpreted by many that we were going to sell your photos to others without any compensation. This is not true and it is our mistake that this language is confusing,” even going so far to say "Because of the feedback we have heard from you, we are reverting this advertising section to the original version that has been in effect since we launched the service in October 2010."

The next day Kevin Systrom released a second blog post, laying to rest the suggested changes to Instagram’s terms of service. Systrom made clear that it was the roar of Instagram user feedback that made them return to the original terms of service in effect since October 2010. He even felt the need to clarify, “I want to be really clear: Instagram has no intention of selling your photos, and we never did. We don’t own your photos — you do.” 

Acknowledging user ownership over content they create, while obvious to most of us, is a big step for an internet company looking to monetize their popularity. And others should pay attention.

Another big event for consumer privacy took place in late December when Facebook began rolling out its new privacy settings in the United States. Since its launch in 2004, Facebook has amassed a treasure trove of user data and has come under scrutiny by lawmakers and regulators on how it uses that data and keeps it private. Facebook has gone through several different privacy policies, generating its fair share of online uprisings.

In an effort to be more in tune with its user’s desires, Facebook even put its most recent policies to vote. Over half a million people voted against new Facebook privacy policies that — among other changes — eliminated user participation and voting from the policy formation process. However, Facebook’s  rules require 30% of its billion users (nearly the entire U.S. population) to vote before agreeing to make changes. So despite user’s attempts to impact the terms of service, it wasn’t enough for Facebook to accept.

Yet Facebook was not entirely deaf to its users, and said it recently amended policies based on user feedback. "For example, we added new language to clarify our proposed updates on sharing information with our affiliates and our privacy controls," blogged Elliot Schrage, VP of communications, public policy and marketing for Facebook (an interesting and revealing combination of roles in itself).

There are plenty of powerful interests shaping online privacy rights, some good some bad. If the public does not like new policies, we need to make sure our voices are heard and changes are made. Increasingly it is clear that online consumers are not afraid to voice their dissent, organize online, and collaborate to stop harmful changes to privacy and online freedom. Just like in the real world, this is what needs to be done to protect our rights, freedoms, and privacy online.

2012 was a watershed year for consumers.  Over the past year millions of Internet users took action to protect a free and open Internet and stopped harmful SOPA legislation. After a 13 year-old girl got over 40,000 online petition signatures calling for the toy maker to make products that appeal to all kids, toy giant Hasbro announced plans to release a gender-neutral Easy-Bake Oven. Even California’s UC system could not ignore public outrage at its new branding, after more than 50,000 people organized online demanding the new logo to be dropped.

As more people get online in 2013 with ever more affordable and more ubiquitous laptops, tablets, and smart-phones, online activism will grow and become more vocal. Simply put, more users will have more to lose when it comes to online privacy. Consumers care about their online freedom and privacy, and aren’t shy about voicing their displeasure. Those business, regulators, and lawmakers who haven’t noticed yet, surely will.

We are the Internet, and we are watching out for ourselves.


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