Consumer Reports advocates for a law, not so much for consumers

The opposing view is not anti-regulatory; it’s self- and co-regulatory, and it’s current.

By Anne Collier

Consumer Reports has a Facebook page, it reports on the third page of its June cover story on privacy in social media. Along with some 900 million other people and organizations around the world who use Facebook, CR apparently derives some benefit from having that page. It also reports that…

* “Facebook recently partnered with the Department of Labor and others to help connect job seekers and employers, developing systems to make job postings viral.
* When tornadoes hit the Midwest and Texas this year, photos of animals posted on Facebook helped families find lost pets.
* The network keeps active-duty soldiers in touch with families, including a National Guardsman serving in Afghanistan who not only reconnected with the woman who later became his wife but now uses it to follow the daily milestones of his newborn daughter.
* And millions now turn to Facebook to express their opinions to government and businesses, flexing their collective muscle in ways never possible before.”

But all that comes after the “many causes for concern” that represent two pages of disservice, not help, to US consumers. Of course it’s business as usual – the news media report airline crashes, not safe landings, and there are many, many more good things than bad things going on in social media, including in Facebook. Looking at CR’s own data, for example, the watchdog says its survey found that 13 million people don’t use the site’s privacy controls, a scarier-sounding way of saying that only 9% of CR’s estimate of 150 million FB users in the US don’t use them, which means that the vast majority of the site’s users – 91% – do use its privacy controls.

That’s news too. And it’s an important start in the direction of solving the more important issues CR gets to way down in the article: of where our data and government (or law enforcement) and social media intersect; of the importance of controlling what data users’ apps can use (see this) and of what employers, insurers, and the IRS might be able to see in our social-media sharing. That’s more like consumer education.

CR reports that some of the scary causes for concern “arise from poor choices users themselves make” but mentions that “users are treating Facebook more warily; 25% said they falsified information in their profiles to protect their identity.” Does the watchdog get that this indicates they’re getting smarter? Back in 2008, Prof. Sonia Livingstone at the London School of Economics published a study finding that teens sometimes fictionalize their social network profiles. Why? To protect their privacy! Only real friends know what is and isn’t true. They know what’s displayed in public in social media is often written in “code” that only friends understand and otherwise to be taken with a grain of salt (here‘s my post about that). “Wary” is good; it leads to self-regulation and -protection. There’s a progression we’ll be seeing: When news media and so-called consumer advocates stop seeing and representing users merely as potential victims and more as participants and stakeholders in their own and each other’s well-being in social media, “wary” will give way to “strategic.”

Advocating for a law, not for consumers

So why does this cover story start off so negatively? CR tells you: “Consumers Union [its parent] wants a national privacy law.” And why is this a disservice? Because pushing for new laws as solutions all by themselves perpetuates a false dependency at a time when laws are less and less of a solution. I’m remembering Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow saying to participants in the Berkman Center’s symposium on bullying two months ago that, in the context of bullying, “the law is much too flimsy a tool to make a difference.” Bullying behavior is one of the risks children face in social media, and here was a law professor citing the limitations of law where behavior is concerned, whether in the form of cyberbullying online or the offline form of social aggression.

What this article represents is not just a “deep division of opinion,” as CR puts it, but a clash of two very different perspectives – vantage points, not opinions – in a time of major social change. I’m referring to global social change that is represented first in this profound shift we’re experiencing from government-regulated mass media to user-driven social media serving borderless networks-of-people who reside in every country on the planet (I hyphenated that to be sure the focus is on the people who make up those networks not on the networks many of us grew up with, such as NBC, BBC, or other corporate or media networks).

Go with the genie or stay in the bottle

The genie has left the bottle, and the two perspectives are either from within the bottle or moving with the genie. With statements like “US online privacy laws are weaker than those of Europe and much of the world,” Consumer Reports represents the “there ought to be a law” regulatory focus that is becoming more anxious and vocal as individual nations’ laws become less able to regulate the behavior of hundreds of millions of people around the world who are updating their social-network “data” in real time, 24/7.

The fears are understandable. When we’re very used to handling problems in a certain way, we can feel very uneasy and frustrated when the conditions that enable us to fix a problem in the usual way change radically right when we’re trying to address it. And we’re only just beginning to work out together how to protect data privacy in a networked world. But little by little, the other perspective – and it’s not merely that of social media companies – will have more of a voice because it is gradually being shared by more and more people, those who are experiencing more benefits from social media than risks. Like airline passengers who fly in spite of the rare reports of airline crashes. In the online-safety field, I think of the Crimes Against Children Research Center reporting in 2009 that there was “no evidence of predators stalking or abducting unsuspecting victims based on information they posted in social sites,” contrary to what was being reported in the news media and sometimes by youth advocates back then.

Not anti-regulatory, but self- and co-regulatory

The other, outside-the-bottle, perspective is also not anti-regulatory. Rather, it’s watching regulation being redefined and getting more distributed. CR reports that “Facebook and other social networks are changing the way the modern world operates” and, citing Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s words, “‘rewriting the rules’ of social engagement.” Well, exactly. When media are user-driven, users have more of a role – a regulatory role, in fact – in all aspects of their experiences in media. By definition, safety, privacy and reputation management in a social media environment are social – a shared proposition and responsibility, sometimes a negotiation. That’s doesn’t mean that users individually or even collectively are solely responsible for their own privacy or safety. It means users share that responsibility with each other, with the companies that provide those media environments and with the governments charged by their citizens to play a protective role. That could possibly mean more laws but they will have to acknowledge and provide for the self- and co-regulatory roles and right of users and corporations. This is the real citizenship of a digital age – understanding and acting on the rights and responsibilities of the individuals and entities in both the public and private sectors that are party to the myriad interest communities of this networked world.

Finding the right balance among the three key parties will take some time and effort. Consumer advocates will serve consumers better when they work harder to inform themselves and consumers about what it’s really like out here – with the genie, outside the bottle – and advocate for solutions based on the shared rights and responsibilities of all of this media environment’s regulatory powers: consumers, corporations, and governments.

Disclosure: Anne Collier is co-director of ConnectSafely, a non-profit Internet safety organization that receives financial support from Facebook, Google, and other Internet companies.

Related links

* Interestingly, in its coverage the Los Angeles Times zoomed in on CR’s point that users are “more wary.”
* Recent posts here on the subject: “Privacy’s 3 main invaders: Security expert’s view”; “The latest on our data privacy”; “And I thought *last* week was data privacy’s tipping point!”; “Facebook’s IPO not just a business story, of course”; and more
* Past posts exploring the changing notion of citizenship: “Anti-social media companies will be obsolete”; “SOPA & citizenship in a digital age”; “A new kind of social contract we’re all signed onto”; and much more

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