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Researcher: Social networks shouldn't reuse private info

By Joab Jackson
April 30, 2010 08:46 AM ET

IDG News Service - While social networking services may legally own customer-generated data generated on their sites, they still should not reuse that material outside the context in which it was created, contended a Microsoft researcher who studies social networks.

Willfully failing to respect the context of how that data was created may only lead to increased regulatory oversight in the future, warned Danah Boyd, in a series of talks given at the WWW 2010 conference, being held this week in Raleigh, North Carolina, as well as in a follow-up interview with IDG News Service.

"When the law comes down, it is usually not pretty," she said.

The message is a timely one, given both the U.S. Senate inquiries into Facebook's privacy settings and the letter of protest sent to Google by privacy watchdogs from multiple nations.

Boyd's idea of context may seem abstract, but it is a vital one to understand how the social rules of privacy should be applied to the online world. In the interview with IDG, she explained the concept further.

People use public social network services to share personal information about their lives with their friends. Yet, we have not yet set the boundaries for the appropriateness of reusing data online, she said. Nor do social networking sites, which Boyd calls data aggregators, fully understand the boundaries either.

In real life, person-to-person interactions are sharply defined, and we when know these boundaries have been crossed. Someone conversing with his or her partner about some sensitive matter would feel slighted if the partner were to go to work and repeat the conversation to coworkers.

Online, matters are fuzzier. "It's a tricky thing because marketers want to look in on us," she said.

For data aggregators, user data is valuable as a marketing tool. Facebook, for instance, will reuse personal information in conjunction with ads. "If you connect with your favorite band's page, we may display your name and profile photo next to an advertisement for that page that is displayed to your friends," Facebook's privacy page states.

Such marketing efforts of social networking sites can unwittingly cross social boundaries, and social networking users feel slighted.

"You're out joking around with friends and all of a sudden you're being used to advertise something that had nothing to do with what you were joking about with your friends," Boyd said. People don't hold conversations on Facebook for marketing purposes, she said, so it would be incorrect for marketing efforts to capitalize on these conversations.

"We're going to have to ask what is acceptable and what isn't, and we haven't really worked out those issues yet," she said.

Reprinted with permission from Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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