Privacy and social experimentation

Managing Partner, IMECS, LLC

“When people use a service for free, they are de facto lab rats for market researchers.” This is one of the responses to the Facebook Social Experimentation revelations that makes more sense than much of the hyperbolic ones that are saturating all forms of media at the moment.

The collision of privacy and social experimentation is not a new phenomenon, but it may appear that way to many. As with all types of internet-based applications there are two sides of the coin: one side is the utility value and engaging experience that the consumer enjoys, and the other is the data gleaned, analyzed and leveraged to create deeper consumer insights to support commercial (and other) endeavors.

rat race.jpg

These two sides are always in conflict, especially in respect to privacy. As mentioned in previous postings of mine, consumers do not bother to read any of the end-user license agreements (EULAs) that they are asked to accept before using an application, much less new agreements accompanying numerous application updates; this behavior puts the consumer’s privacy directly at risk.

Most consumers, according to several recent Pew Research surveys (see: “Beyond Red vs. Blue: The Political Typology” and “Anonymity, Privacy, and Security Online”), seem to be happy to trade off their privacy protections in order to participate in the latest social media craze, so when providers such as Google or Facebook conduct “social experiments” using their data it should, in theory, not raise anyone’s hackles.

My belief is that much of the outrage being displayed currently is a delayed aggregate response to all of the revelations of the past year (including: Snowden revelations, the Target breache, Google Ads, Facebook’s ever-changing privacy protections and Microsoft’s X-Box1 “creepiness”) and is an indicator that we have entered what I refer to as “knee jerk” mode: when the smallest stimulus produces an inordinate involuntary response.  

I wish that we could harness this energy and consumer focus on the larger issue of “the illusion of privacy” altogether, as this is what will be required to change the path that we are already well down, which is “no privacy at all.”

While the theater of “Social Experimentation Knee Jerk” plays itself out, there is movement by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to expand its role in privacy protection by taking on monitoring and enforcement activities for emerging regulations associated with the outcome of the big data and privacy studies of earlier this year (2014) as well as the numerous data breaches and feigned outrage at Facebook.

In my viewpoint, this would be a mistake, as the FTC can barely meet its mission today and for the most part focuses on low-hanging fruit in terms of enforcement. Fundamentally, a future set of privacy protection regulations (and laws) must address the three legs of the stool:

  1. The consumer (personally and collectively)
  2. Commercial organizations, nonprofits and non-governmental institutions (NGIs)
  3. The government (all branches)

Each of these “legs” has a critical role in making any form of a universal privacy doctrine workable, much less enforceable. As one can imagine, this is a herculean undertaking and, no matter the logic of choosing, the FTC as the watchdog just won’t fly. Privacy should be a cabinet-level post in the administration with a singular focus, not a politically driven body.

In my next blog post, I will take a stab at laying out a straw man of what I believe a universal privacy doctrine would be comprised of.

In the meantime, for those who are in the UK, please register to attend “Data Leadership 2014” in late October in London. I will be keynoting on “The Data Leadership Nexus.”