The word “privacy” is a loaded one these days. Interestingly, privacy is a topic on the minds of both librarians and social networkers. Both of these groups have faced infringements on privacy in recent years, and have reacted in different ways. If librarians want to use social media marketing as a tool, it is important to first consider the issue of privacy.
Not only are librarians charged with providing information and services to the tax-paying public, they are also charged with protecting these individuals’ right to keep their inquiries private. The ALA fiercely campaigns for the users’ right to privacy in their statement on the topic: “All users have a right to be free from any unreasonable intrusion into or surveillance of their lawful library use.”
Since the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, the United States has operated under a new standard of privacy outlined in the USA PATRIOT ACT. This act slashed the public’s right to privacy to its core. In the name of fighting terrorism, the Bush administration allowed law enforcement officials access to citizens’ private information in unprecedented ways. This affected libraries because library records were no longer protected. A law enforcement official could walk in to a library and demand access to a patron’s records without a warrant from a judge.
Librarians fought back! The ALA states that it “considers that sections of the USA PATRIOT ACT are a present danger to the constitutional rights and privacy rights of library users.” Librarians around the country rose up and fought back. Many refused to hand over records or computers, facing legal ramifications for their efforts. Library director George Christian states “Terrorists win when the fear of them induces us to destroy the rights that make us free.”
Social networking sites are also grappling with issues of privacy, though in a different way. While library administrators are fighting to keep their patrons’ records private, social networking administrators are fighting to break down users’ privacy rights.
The nature of social networking is not private. Social networking is for sharing your information! The nuance is that it is for sharing with people of your choosing: your friends. However, administrators encourage sharing by setting their default privacy settings to the most open possible. They are trying to say that sharing your information with the world, not just your friends, is the new normal. In addition, administrators sometimes take advantage of their access to private information and share it with others, including advertising agencies (Miller 2011).
One example of this is Facebook’s Beacon feature. In 2007, Mark Zuckerberg introduced Beacon, which tracked what you purchased on participating websites (Blockbuster, Overstock.com, Zappos, etc.) and posted these purchases on your account for anyone to see. This occurred without your knowledge or permission, and privacy controls were extremely limited. After being sued, Facebook discontinued the feature in 2009. Zuckerberg did not give up entirely, however. He has a history of introducing shocking new features, like Beacon, which seem to violate privacy and force users to share more than what they want to. He dials the features back after the initial shock, and then slowly reintroduces them until sharing more than you originally wanted becomes the social norm. Facebook has slowly reintroduced some of Beacon’s features in a new project called Facebook Connect.
These privacy violations make users a little gun-shy about their privacy on social networking platforms. Writer and computer scientist Jaron Lanier believes they’re right to feel this way. He explains, “If you don’t pay money to be on Facebook, you are not a user. Companies pay money, they are customers, you are the product that’s sold to them.” Mark Zuckerberg understands the threat of social networkers understanding this. Any social networking site has enormous profit-making potential from advertising, but it will lose this potential if it loses the users’ trust: this is the biggest asset these companies have. A careful balance must be found between reaching potential and maintaining user trust (Miller 2011).
My next post will consider how libraries can avoid breaching patrons’ online privacy and trust while still reaching them through social media marketing. For now, let’s consider some general questions about privacy on social networking websites. Are you personally concerned about your privacy online? Do you feel that targeted ads are a violation of users’ trust? Do you think the ALA is right to decry the USA PATRIOT ACT? Are we heading towards a more open society, where privacy is a thing of the past?
Miller, C. (Producer). (4 December 2011). Mark Zuckerberg: Inside Facebook. London, England: BBC.
(Other sources linked within post)