The survival of a business depends today on the gathering of information for marketing purposes. A successful company has to analyze data, plan, and then execute a strategy. The Internet and today’s technology have made the first step quick and efficient. Google Analytics, for example, generates detailed numbers about website visits, summarizes the information into convenient charts, and helps users strategize and develop marketing plans.
Much like any other business, the music industry requires information to target specific fans. After all, music without people willing to listen to it has no market value. However, the Internet’s potential raises issues of privacy and information security. As the Internet has only been commercially available for about fifteen years, users are still not educated enough to understand the significance of good privacy protection. We tend not read the terms of service when signing up for website. Younger generations are prone to be more vulnerable because they are not trained to think much about privacy. Thus, we continue to find cases of online defamation, unsolicited emails, and the creation of personal information databases without the requisite clearance.
In August of 2010, a group representing minors and parents sued Warner Brothers Records, as well as Disney and several other corporations, for placing flash-based cookies developed by Clearspring Technologies onto user systems that enabled tracking of visitors that web-surfed beyond their sites. Plus, these cookies had an ability to regenerate once deleted, without notification or asking for the consent of the user[i]. Since the federal government lets private database owners decide how, when, and where they can share this information, it ends up being sold to third parties such as ad agencies.
Finding a balance between privacy and good ethics is complicated, and there is a trade-off between more security and the benefit of the new technology. In December 2010, Apple, Pandora, and a number of other top smartphone manufacturers and software developers were sued for possible privacy breaches. According to the lawsuit, iPads and iPhones contain a Unique Device Identifier (UDID) that acts as a cookie for web browsers, and can track all activities performed by the user. The cookie retrieves personal information such as location, age, and gender that can be collected and sold to third party ad agencies.[ii] Officially, the purpose of UDID is for Apple to approve the installation of new software. The user cannot turn off the UDID, because it protects mobile carriers from pirated software.[iii] With the release of the iPhone4, congress has questioned the collection of “a range of user information, including location specifics.”[iv] Nevertheless, Steve Jobs has said that users have the ultimate control whether to purchase the device or not, and they also have the ability to turn off the real-time geographic locator. (To view a table that shows personal data collected from several popular apps in the iPhone and Android, see: http://blogs.wsj.com/wtk-mobile/.)
Facebook has also had to deal with an onslaught of privacy concerns, and recent breaches have led to an ongoing investigation. On May 7th 2010, fifteen organizations, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), filed a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Facebook, they said, “has engaged in unfair and deceptive trade practices[v].” In their prepared testimony, they asked lawmakers to update and amend the federal privacy law “to limit the ability of Social Network companies to disclose user information to third parties without informed and explicit consent.” They urge the FTC to investigate Facebook’s business model, as users cannot keep up with the countless changes and updates to their privacy policies. Without easily accessible information on the updates, users have no control about where their personal information goes.
The following are some examples of controversial features in Facebook, as listed on EPIC’s official website:
(i) Facebook requires “accurate, current and complete” information of users as they activate their account, thus, requiring online identities to match their real life identities.
(ii) Facebook allows users to invite their colleagues and friends via a contact importer, which downloads all the contacts from users’ existing e-mail accounts. The website does not specify what happens when these e-mail addresses are given out.
(iii) Users can utilize various applications via the Facebook Platform, which was introduced in 2007. For users to gain access to these applications, Facebook has to share their data.
(iv) Facebook displays social ads and pages that target users demographically, using collected information upon the creation of a Facebook account.
Facebook, of course, has introduced many useful innovations and is officially supportive of privacy terms. But on March 2, 2011, replying to a letter by Congressmen Ed Markey and Joe Barton, Facebook could still say that it would “go forward with a proposal to provide users’ [information] to third-party application developers.” In the meantime, reports of cancelled accounts are rising. Facebook scored just 64 on the American Customer Satisfaction Index’s (ACSI) 100-point scale.[vi]
The above suggests that, regardless of Facebook’s practices, there has been a movement in Congress to amend federal privacy law in accordance to problems raised by social networking websites. While “the United States Constitution does not contain the word privacy,” the concept of it prevails throughout its amendments, and it is recognized as a penumbral right; i.e. a right by implication. At stake here, and from an individual perspective, is the balance between a great user experience and the safeguarding of private information.
If user behavior is the measure of our concern for privacy, it may appear that this is not such a priority for most of us. According to statistics posted on Facebook, its user base has more than 500 million active users, who spend over 700 billion minutes on the site a month[vii]. Artists and bands will certainly continue to utilize the benefits of having access to a large user base, from which they may plan their marketing strategy. In fact, if Congress pushes its agenda too much and forbids all the features within social networking platforms that touch on privacy concerns, the advantage of utilizing Facebook and other websites may disappear. Connectivity and sharing are two key concepts of social networking, and as long as this is valued more highly than privacy, control of an individual’s profile over the Internet might become more and more elusive.
By Ben Hong