Privacy settings, the California Way
May 17, 2011
This post was adapted from a news analysis assignment in a class called “Building Networked Audiences”
California law sets privacy bar high for social media
Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and Twitter may seem like a strange alliance, but the internet companies have come together in California to fight a bill that proposes to control how social media applications can use their use data.
State Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett, a Democrat, proposed legislation this month that sets privacy requirements for all social media sites operating in the state. It also requires that the social media company allow parents access to their children’s accounts.
As reported at SFGate.com, and picked up by Tech Crunch and several other web media blogs, the legislation requires social media companies to have users set up their privacy settings during the initial sign-up period, and requires those settings to default to private, meaning users would have to opt-in to having any of their information shared.
Currently, Facebook and other sites use default settings that make most user information public (or at least allow the company to share the information with its “partners”).
Facebook and other major social media companies, including Google and Yahoo, are fighting the legislation stating in a letter to Sen. Corbett that the legislation “gratuitously singles out social networking sites without demonstration of any harm.” Analysts contend that the internet companies are probably more concerned with the slippery slope that any government-mandated privacy settings could signify.
It seems likely, in addition, that Facebook and other companies are concerned with the requirement that users opt-in to information sharing. It could be a generational thing, but it seems unlikely to this reporter that anyone would willingly click a button to allow Facebook to share private information about themselves with third-party partners (re: advertisers).
Facebook now relies on the fact that their privacy settings are so complicated and confusing, that many people just allow the defaults to ride, allowing the company to share at least some of their personal information. Not that information sharing is necessarily a bad thing, but it sure does get some negative press, due largely to the fact that Facebook has been less than forthcoming about just where that information is going and to what use.
More concerning is the fact that the California law, if passed, could set a precedent for other states to follow, creating a patchwork of 50 or more privacy laws across the country. This patchwork could make it difficult for Facebook, Twitter, and other major companies to develop privacy settings that meet the requirements of all 50 states, not to mention those of the international community. And it would make it nearly impossible for a start-up company to get out of the gate.
Some bloggers and columnists have suggested that a national privacy law will be the inevitable outgrowth of the discussion underway in California. But it seems unlikely given the current political climate, and the ramifications of such a bill beyond social networks. What the country will likely be left with is a range of requirements and a plethora of lawsuits in the coming years.