It’s bad enough that most of the “choices” we have in privacy today are either, “Accept our terms or don’t use the service.” But then the terms can change at any time?
Most companies, like Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft, promise to make an effort to let you know that material changes have been made, by contacting you or posting the changes prominently. Some, like New York Times Digital and Facebook, promise that material changes won’t go into effect for six months, giving their users some time to find out.
Facebook is certainly not a model of privacy protection, but this incident is illuminating. Legally, Facebook could change its terms without its members’ approval. But practically, it couldn’t. There’s been some debate over whether angry users understood the changes and what they meant, but that’s almost irrelevant. Facebook couldn’t simply dictate the terms of its relationship with its users any more, given that its greatest asset is the content created by its users.
It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s not surprising that some of the most visible and effective consumer efforts to change how a company uses personal information have stemmed from an online service based on voluntary sharing. The more people are given opportunities to participate in how information is shared, the better people can understand what it means for a company to share their information and the more likely they are to feel empowered to shape what happens to their information. Facebook can’t offer the service that it does without the content generated by its users. But as it’s begun to realize, its users then have to be a part of decisions about the way that content is used.
We all know privacy policies are frustrating, inadequate, and difficult to understand. So it’s good to remember that all our privacy battles don’t have to be fought on their terms.