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Privacy: The Achilles' Heel of Social Media

Posted by: Lucy Fielding on April 22, 2010

News that Google’s security—and along with it, users’ personal information—had been compromised, sparked fresh calls from privacy advocates for legislation, as well as open criticism from foreign governments. That’s on the heels of the launch of Google’s Buzz, which resulted in a public outcry and rejection from those who felt the search giant overstepped the mark by pushing technology that seemed to invade a personal sense of privacy.

The newly appointed Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, Jon Leibowitz, is unlikely to sympathize with Google. In fact, he’s expected to bring about a significant increase in the FTC's enforcement activities, particularly in the area of online advertising and privacy protection, according to the Advertising Law blog. It quoted him saying, "Industry needs to do a better job of meaningful, rigorous self-regulation or it will certainly invite legislation by Congress and a more regulatory approach by our Commission."

Meanwhile, as Google continues to fight criticism, there have been more outcries from privacy advocates—but this time, the villains are six government agencies, including the IRS, Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Defense. The Electronic Frontier Foundation believes that the government’s monitoring of social networking infringes on our rights and also invades a personal sense of privacy. So while Congress may permit social media monitoring when it is Big Brother, they are not so welcoming when it comes from brands—even in cases where they bring utility and value to our lives; and even in cases where we willingly give up our information to them. The difference being that when the customer feels a sense of intrusion from a brand, they now have the means and methods in which to raise objection, whereas if it’s either government led or controlled, the debate becomes political (and no longer public). 

Regardless of how the two differ (and the outcome for each), what both battles make clear is that privacy issues are a huge sticking point when it comes to social media. Transparency in the new paradigm of social media means brands have a responsibility to behave with integrity and self-regulate before legislation is imposed and alters the opportunity of progress.

How many times has legislation been a reaction to a short-term disruption to the status quo? Social media has shaken things up and forever altered our conceptions of “what is private.”  We are in a changing landscape and what our generation perceives to be important about privacy may not be the same for the next. That’s why brands must demonstrate that it is in their interest to create more meaningful connection and interaction with customers, rather than to exploit them. They must show integrity and make sure they understand how their customers’ privacy should be treated. They must also be clear about what customers do and do not value.  

Ultimately, the fate of social media lies in the hands of brands. How they proceed in the next few years will determine everything. If brands continue to provide customers with valuable experiences on social media, customers will continue to willingly participate. If they don’t—well, then you know what to expect.

This post is the twelfth in a series called That’s Debatable: Social Media Edition – posts designed around oft-debated topics in our community, meant to spark conversation and gather different perspectives. Learn more about That’s Debatable, and take our social media survey, and join the debate on brandchannel.




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