The Truth About Privacy, Social Networks And Your Business

Last Updated May 19, 2011 8:28 AM EDT

Let's start with a little hate mail.

This one comes from a reader named Natasha, who says while she "normally" agrees with me, she can't believe I'd suggest consumers care more about low prices and good service than about privacy, as I did last week.

"You blew it this time as a consumer advocate," she wrote. "I am disappointed."

She vowed never to read one of my posts again.

Boo. Hoo.

Had she read the post carefully, she would have realized I wasn't saying that they don't care about privacy at all, but that other issues are generally more important to them.

Think about it in these terms: Which phone would sell better, the super-private handset that costs $100 a month, or the "open" phone that follows you everywhere, for $10 a month?

Exactly. The ten-dollar phone will fly off the shelves.

I have similar thoughts about California's proposed online privacy bill, which is being furiously opposed by the likes of Facebook, Google, Twitter and Skype.

If passed, the law would require consumers' permission to display personal information such as home addresses and phone numbers. It would also also allow parents to request any personal identifying information about their children under the age of 18 be removed within 48 hours of asking.

Now, as the father of three children (none of which, thankfully, have Facebook accounts yet) I like the idea of being able to delete any questionable material my kids may have posted online, especially if it's embarrassing photographs of their father. I also like the idea of being able to manage my privacy settings without having to click through five or six screens.

So, from a consumer perspective, this appears to be an idea whose time has come.

But from a business perspective, it could be problematic. The social networking sites warn that passage of the bill "would dramatically limit social networking sites' growth potential in California by imposing additional operating costs and raising barriers to consumer participation in social networking services, all while exposing those services to massive and unwarranted civil liability."

And when businesses suffer -- so the argument goes -- customers do, too.

If California's law is adopted, and it becomes the basis for a federal law, then it isn't too much of a stretch to imagine a day when social networks are so limited that they become useless.

Who is asking to "friend" me? I don't know; his name is witheld for privacy reasons.

How do I contact someone who is following me on a social networking service? I can't because her email is blocked in order to preserve her privacy.

Personally, I would prefer my social networking sites to make it easier to control my privacy settings. I also have a problem with cell phones tracking my location without getting my permission. But it's possible to go too far in the other direction, and in doing so, destroying what makes this technology useful.

Under such restrictive rules, it's difficult to see a way the social networking sites could deliver quality customer service to their members.

So to the Natashas out there who don't want to hear this, I say: Turn off your computers and toss out your cell phones. The rest of us will have to look for a compromise in a world where consumers are increasingly aware that their data isn't as private as they thought it was.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He also covers customer service for the Mint.com blog. You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.
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Photo: as737700/Flickr
  • Christopher Elliott

    Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and journalist. A columnist for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the Washington Post, Elliott also has a nationally syndicated column and blogs about customer service for the Mint.com. He is at work on a book about customer service issues.