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April 15 2013

12:04

April 08 2013

11:00

Automated Ad Exchanges Will Dominate If They Address Fraud, Privacy Issues

Imagine if advertising functioned like a complex modern stock exchange, through which billions of dollars flowed electronically in transactions lasting fractions of a second.

Publishers would place their pages and videos in the exchange, specifying their "asks" -- what they thought the adjacent ad spots were worth, based on the presumed value of the content and the people consuming it.

onlineadsevolved_seriesimage_sm.jpg

Advertisers would place "bids," saying how much they were willing to pay to get their ads in front of individuals who matched desired attributes such as age range, gender, family status, income level, geography and interest in the advertiser's type of product.

When the "bid" matched the "ask," the ad would be placed seamlessly, and the money would flow from advertiser to publisher -- with the exchange and a few other go-betweens taking their slivers.

The scenario isn't imaginary. Chances are you've experienced the result of just such a transaction on your computer, tablet or smartphone, and perhaps even an electronic billboard, TV or radio.

Programmatic advertising -- in which advertisements are bought, sold and placed through automated exchanges -- is "a multibillion-dollar marketplace growing faster than search, video, or anything else for that matter," advertising entrepreneur John Battelle wrote in a blog post in January.

For advertisers trying to sell products and services, the appeal of exchanges is easy to understand. For privacy advocates and some publishers, it's easy to see why they are often suspicious. For all sides, it all has to do with how the technology works.

While ad exchanges account for a fraction of digital advertising today, their share is growing. An investment bank estimated last year that 35 percent of digital display advertisements were "biddable" in 2011, up from nothing -- literally 0 percent -- in 2007.

MikeShehan.jpg

Those ads account for billions of dollars, and some experts predict that programmatic buying and selling will handle half or more of all digital advertising in years to come -- in part because it's much more efficient than the more laborious practices common today.

"A traditional advertising deal takes hundreds of emails, insertion orders, manual tagging and trafficking. Then there's reporting, change orders, bill synching. You find out why an agency has 200 people just to execute buys," said Mike Shehan, CEO of SpotXchange, a video ad exchange for which my company, Teeming Media, recently produced an 11-chapter white paper. "Programmatic advertising is the automation of all of that."

The Technology Holds the Key

Advertising exchanges sit at the center of a complex ecosystem of technologies that on one end represent the advertising, or "buy" side -- those looking to buy a spot in which to place an ad.

At the other end are the sellers like publishers who have content (such as a video or a web page) into which the ads will be inserted.

Ad Exchange Ecosystem_Screen Shot 2013-03-27 at 5.27.37 PM.png

What differentiates the exchanges from other types of advertising insertion systems is their level of sophisticated, real-time decision-making.

They place the ads by correlating them to multiple factors, and can do so for almost every individual "impression" in real time.

An ad network, by contrast, tends to buy large swathes of impressions from a range of publishers up front then guarantee advertisers placements in those spots for a set fee.

The network may, for example, buy placements from a range of large publishers and smaller blogs in content about a specific subject such as cooking, then tell the advertiser that they can through the network reach people interested in cooking.

There are, of course, also "direct" deals -- ones in which a salesperson from a publisher deals directly with an advertiser or their agency, and then receives and traffics the ads.

Publishers Get Less Skittish

Advertisers in recent months have become increasingly enamored with the exchanges because they seem to have a higher assurance of showing an ad to just the right person at just the right time with the right message that will entice him or her to buy.

Let's say, for example, that a woman in a choice age bracket and geography has visited the IMDb page to learn more about a new movie.

What if the studio could then show her an ad about that movie while she's looking for something to do on a subsequent evening?

If the ad's on her phone, and she's near a theater, even better. The advertiser can add location to the range of factors that makes the ad relevant.

It's all done through a chain of tracking, usually via cookies, that gives a level of probability that a correct match is made. The higher the probability the factors match up well, and the more high value the content, the higher the price for the ad is likely to be.

While reputable publishers have been skittish about exchanges -- suspecting they are auction systems that buyers use to try to pinch pennies -- more have started to experiment with them.

Many ads in Google's empire are sold through exchange systems, and both Facebook and Amazon last year announced they were launching exchange-based advertising systems. They all want to capture dollars the advertisers are allocating to exchanges.

In some cases, the sellers set pricing "floors" beneath which they will not accept a bid for their content when they believe they can command a higher price.

In other cases, high-profile publishers with billions of impressions to sell, including Conde Nast and Time, have also constructed "private exchanges," in which they offer ads only to a limited set of choice clients instead of on the open market.

Some are also using "yield management" platforms, which evaluate impressions individually to determine whether each one will get more money on an exchange, an ad network or via a direct deal a salesperson has closed with an advertiser.

"Yield management on an impression basis can decide of the three available revenue streams which can provide the most value," Paul Dolan, CEO of Xaxis, an advertising buying company that spends many thousands of dollars on exchanges, told me in an interview.

Future: Concerns, Sophistication

Privacy advocates, not surprisingly, are nervous about all the tracking, and bristle at the idea of advertisers and merchants collecting and using data, despite promises it's all anonymized.

If current legislation being explored in Washington is passed, the advertising exchange industry could take a huge hit.

And though the evolving ecosystem is what Battelle called "rife with opportunity," he also called it "riddled with fraud," citing automated bots that mimic humans, invisible tracking pixels, and ads shown in places no human sees them.

Major publishers, exchanges and ad networks have been working with the IAB industry trade group to solidify standards and certify the upstanding participants in the marketplace.

As IAB standards take hold, and more premium publishers release ad inventory, higher profile brand names have also increased their spending levels. Major hotel chains, brewers, soft-drink brands and telecom companies have all served both static and video ads into advertising exchanges within the past year.

Publishers, in turn, have become more assured they can command reasonable prices and have quality ads that look appropriate next to their content, and fewer of the flashing lights and blinking types of junk ads we've all seen on occasion.

It's a sure bet that the predictions of increased dollars flowing through exchanges are correct, and that more sophisticated technologies will emerge.

We will likely see a day when ad spots are bought and sold via options and derivatives, with sophisticated machine trading that mimics NASDAQ and the NYSE. Experiments along these lines have already begun.

Let's hope that when that happens, the algorithms create real value -- enhancing people's experiences as they consume their favorite news and entertainment -- while respecting privacy and stamping out fraud.

An award-winning former managing editor at ABCNews.com and an MBA (with honors), Dorian Benkoil handles marketing and sales strategies for MediaShift, and is the business columnist for the site. He is a founder at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on attracting, engaging, and activating communities through digital media. He tweets at @dbenk and you can Circle him on Google+.

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April 25 2012

14:00

As the 'Friction-Less' Web Grows, Friction Against It Does Too

Control over our public image is incredibly important to us -- from the clothes we decide to wear each morning, to the music we blast loud enough for street-goers to hear, to the very words we speak aloud to our friends, bosses and strangers.

Often, they're carefully chosen within our rooms, our headphones, and our minds. We need these private labs.

But what if we lost these laboratories? What if every contemplation, every experiment, everything you did, was public?

That, some argue, is the future of a "friction-less" web -- a kind of stream-of-consciousness for the virtual world.

That story you just read about Kate Winslet being photoshopped? Just by reading it, you told every one of your 700 Facebook friends that you read it. Was it really something you wanted to share? On the friction-less web, that may no longer be your decision. And that is what has critics worried.

The mega-success that is the WaPo Social Reader

thisapp.png

Last month, the WaPo Labs digital team, which researches and tests out digital innovation for the Washington Post, continued its tour of universities at the University of Southern California, where I study.

Privacy was at the core of the conversation.

The pride and joy at WaPo Labs is the Social Reader, a free Facebook application that allows users to read Washington Post news from friends, and automatically share those stories. Once a user agrees to the terms of the app, every time he or she decides to click on a Washington Post article within Facebook, it's shared with all his or her friends.

For the Washington Post, it's a goldmine. Just look at these staggering numbers from the few companies that first took up the technology. The more sharing of their content, the better. And for now, WaPo is among only a few news organizations (The Guardian, Yahoo News, Wall Street Journal) and social media companies (Spotify) that use friction-less technology. That number, however, is quickly growing, particularly as Facebook's Open Graph aspirations are taken up by more and more developers.

If WaPo Labs' visit and its presentation to USC was any indication, the Social Reader has been a mega-success for its news organization.

'Friction-less,' defined

The term "friction-less" is fairly new. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg first used it at the company's f8 developers conference in late 2011 while unveiling Timeline -- a dramatic redesign of user profiles. Zuckerberg described the new experience of using Timeline as "real-time serendipity in a friction-less experience." It all goes in line with the company's belief that privacy will become obsolete in the future.

Well, the term caught on. Now, it's got people thinking it will become necessary for companies online.

Simply put, friction-less sharing means you don't have to manually cut and paste a link into the "update status" box at the top of your Facebook profile, and then hit "post." For now, the auto-sharing is contained within Facebook, but it's likely to spread.

It's "a euphemism for silent total surveillance," developer Adrian Short wrote in his post "It's the End of the Web As We Know It."

The worry? What happens when all companies, including news organizations, are using friction-less sharing? And, will there be a day it becomes mandatory?

Here's the doomsday scenario:

One day, we're dependent on social media, ruled by a few companies. Every click we make is information beneficial to those companies. As a result, every click -- your digital footprint -- is shared, and then archived. There will be a day when friction-less sharing is so prevalent, and so important to companies, you will no longer have a private laboratory on the Internet. You will forget which terms you agreed to. Every click will prompt you to ask, "Will this go out to all my friends?"

washpo.png

Sure, upon first agreeing to the terms of the Washington Post Social Reader application, you are making a decision. Beyond that, you're not making any decisions -- about what to share or with whom to share it. You're only deciding whether or not to read content.

(Jon Mitchell of ReadWriteWeb this month also panned the WaPo reader, as well as other "social news" apps.)

Here's the problem

If you were worried about that pain in your chest, would you still read that WebMD article on heart attacks? Wouldn't your family, friends, co-workers worry for you?

If you were gay, but not out, would you look up gay bars and clubs on the Internet, or read articles on gay rights? What if others found out?

If you were sexually assaulted, would you stay away from crisis and treatment-center websites? Would you read articles about people who had triumphed over similar atrocities?

Fear would drive us away from a lot of things on the web.

However, as usually is the case, there is another side to the "doomsday scenario."

As one commenter to Short's article put it, "Social media is evolving, but as people with free will, we collectively decide the direction it navigates. Now, this is where your article comes to play. You have raised a point, and people will notice soon enough. We owe it to posterity not to create monsters."

It's inevitable as friction-less sharing gains notoriety, and more and more companies install WaPo Labs' social readers, a public friction will arise, and push back. Users, to an extent, will enjoy the ease of web surfing and sharing, without the hassle of manually working the "update status" input box. The idea that we all are Truman Burbank, living out our lives for the public spectacle, plays strongly to our egos.

But we need our private laboratories.

Already, the White House has unveiled its blueprint for a "Privacy Bill of Rights" to protect consumers online, including the "Do-Not-Track" technology that Google, surprisingly, has agreed to.

For now, online privacy is a growing concern, but friction-less technology is about to drive it to the very top of our concerns.

In the future, we will need to continue to balance our insatiable desire to share life experiences online, with our need for privacy and experimentation away from public scrutiny.

But now, we also have to contend with the bottom line-driven interests of companies that can benefit -- in some cases hugely -- by making public our once private laboratories.

Dan Watson is currently the editor-in-chief at USC's innovative digital website Neontommy.com, the nation's most widely trafficked college news site. He leads a staff of more than 50 editors and 100 reporters. Before returning to school to get his Masters in digital journalism at USC, he was an assistant sports editor for a series of newspapers on the beautiful Central Coast of California. Dan got his B.A. in journalism from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, where he was editor-in-chief of the college newspaper, and launched its first true news site. Shortly after its launch, it was named the nation's No. 1 college news site. He has worked for five newspapers, and is currently a Carnegie-Knight fellow reporting on the 2012 presidential election for the Guardian.

This post originally appeared here.

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April 22 2011

22:10

What Do You Think About iPhones Tracking You?

There is a bizarre competition among tech firms to see who can creep us out the most. First came Google and its peeping StreetView vans loaded with webcams. Then came Facebook and its "brilliant" Beacon feature that broadcast items you recently bought to your friends. Now comes news from a pair of researchers that Apple has a tracking file in iPhones and iPads with iOS 4 that saves your location data. And twice a day that information is beamed to Apple itself. Now that can be a good thing if you lose your iPhone or have it stolen. And law enforcement officers have been using tracking on phones to hunt down criminals for years. But what about this secret feature that few people knew about? Should Apple come clean? Fix it? Let you opt out? Share your thoughts in our poll, or give us your own take in the comments below.




What do you think about iPhones tracking your location?customer surveys

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17:00

Mediatwits #4: Impressive, Creepy Apple; The iPhone Radio Reporter

neal augenstein larger.JPG

Welcome to the fourth episode of "The Mediatwits," the new revamped longer form weekly audio podcast from MediaShift. The co-hosts are MediaShift's Mark Glaser along with PaidContent founder Rafat Ali. This week's show is obsessed with all things Apple -- and iPhone. Apple had a blow-out earnings quarter, nearly doubling its profits and selling more iPhones than ever with the new Verizon iPhone. But the creepy part is the finding by scientists that your iPhone (and iPad) knows your location and has been storing that in a secret file since last June. (Update: Today the Wall Street Journal found that Google is also tracking Android phones.)

Our guest this week is Neal Augenstein, the first major-market radio reporter to give up his bulky equipment and use just an iPhone to do audio and video reports for WTOP-FM and wtop.com in Washington, DC. Plus, there are two new news aggregators and apps, Trove and News.me, that needed a quick take.

Check it out!

mediatwits4.mp3

Subscribe to the podcast here

Follow @TheMediatwits on Twitter here

Intro and outro music by 3 Feet Up; mid-podcast music by Autumn Eyes via Mevio's Music Alley.

Here are some highlighted topics from the show:

Apple's blowout quarter

3:30: Apple by the numbers

5:30: iPod going into the sunset?

7:00: Mark enjoys freedom from AT&T

iPhones tracking you

7:50: Background on consolidated.db file

9:15: Rafat says it will be shut down

10:40: WSJ series What They Know

12:10: Do people care?

Neal Augenstein interview

13:40: Neal details all the old gear he used to carry

16:10: The app Neal uses on his iPhone for audio editing

17:50: Audio is about 92% as good as before

20:10: Figuring out best practices as he goes along

23:40: RIP Flipcam

Trove and News.me

25:30: Mark's experience with News.me

27:40: News.me is a Twitter replacement or enhancement?

29:20: Flipboard gets $50 million in funding

More Reading

Apple clobbers estimates, iPad sales fall short at Fortune

AT&T Boosts Subscriber Rolls Even as Verizon Gains IPhone at Bloomberg

With iPhone, everybody wins: Verizon, AT&T and Apple at Computerworld

Got an iPhone or 3G iPad? Apple is recording your moves at O'Reilly Radar

Researcher: iPhone, iPad track users' whereabouts at CNET

iStalk: Apple's iPhones, iPads revealed to be tracking user data at NY Post

Apple, Google Collect User Data at WSJ

News.me, the iPad News Aggregator Blessed by Big Publishers, Gets Ready to Launch at AllThingsD

News.me

Trove

What They Know series by Wall Street Journal

Holy Crap, Flipboard Just Raised $50 Million At A $200 Million Valuation at Business Insider

Weekly Poll

Don't forget to vote in our weekly poll, this time about the iPhone tracking your movements:




What do you think about iPhones tracking your location?survey software

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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April 14 2011

19:02

Facebook Moves Slow to Remove Offensive Content, Fake Profiles

When it comes to Facebook, what goes up may not come down, at least not without a fight. In many cases, the social networking giant has been slow to act when it comes to offensive content and fake profiles.

Robin Sinkhorn, mother of actress Lauren Potter, who plays Becky in the popular TV series "Glee," learned this last year. Potter has Down's Syndrome. When an onslaught of offensive messages suddenly appeared on her authorized fan page, it took her mother hours -- then days -- to delete them and block the offenders.

"When it was time to protect my daughter, it wasn't easy to do," Sinkhorn recalls. "I ended up having to delete everything -- even the pictures we wanted. [Facebook] needs to be more user-friendly for parents."

The incident had a happy ending when fans from around the world posted updates supporting Potter. The mother and daughter still use Facebook, in part to spread the word about a campaign to raise awareness that using "the R-word" (retard) in any situation -- online or off -- is not okay.

'An Absolute Nightmare'

Cathy Williams is still waiting for her happy ending. In early January, she discovered a fake Facebook profile of her 13-year-old daughter Cassidy, a good student and star athlete. Williams has struggled for three months to get the page removed.

"This has been an absolute nightmare," says the Peachtree City, Georgia, mother. "Facebook is just this giant entity that you cannot touch -- you cannot talk to. Between me and my sister it had to be reported 300 times and you never get anything," Williams said. "What does it take to get their attention?"

Privacy settings also played a role; the fake profile's tight privacy settings made it hard for Williams to see what was going on, while a classmate's wide-open settings allowed the imposter to snag Cassidy's photo.

A Facebook spokesman points out that Facebook, which is based on a "real identity culture," is self-policing.

"We provide 'report' links on nearly every page and encourage people to let us know when they see something they think might violate our standards," said Facebook's Simon Axten. "Our team of investigators reviews and takes action on reported content according to our policies."

Axten adds that Facebook takes its community standards and Statement of Rights and Responsibilities very seriously, and reacts quickly.
But Williams says efforts to report the page resulted in one dead-end after another. She even recalls a message from Facebook saying it no longer accepts a form the site directed her to.

The fake profile briefly disappeared from time to time only to reappear, sometimes under the names of other middle-schoolers. The impostor's friends included teens Williams says were expelled for alleged gang activity. The angry mother pored through the school directory calling students and parents, and Cassidy texted her real friends, to no avail. Neither local police nor the Georgia Bureau of Investigation could do anything. The authorities told Cassidy's mother they could only act if the site hindered the victim's professional reputation or ability to earn income. "The laws aren't in place to protect middle school kids," she says.

In response to emailed questions, Axten provided a direct link to a form he says can be used to request information associated with an account without having to provide a subpoena or court order.

"We did all the reading of the fine print and Frequently Asked Questions with a fine tooth comb," Williams said, but had never encountered that form.

As of now, the page appears to be gone, but Williams doesn't know whether Facebook finally removed it or whether it's gone temporarily dormant as it has many times before.

Removing Fake Profiles

rachel stilwell.jpeg

California attorney Rachel Stilwell has found it relatively simple to remove fake profiles of her celebrity clients. Last year an imposter urged people to donate to a "charity" her client -- a regular on General Hospital -- had never heard of. In that case, using the "report" link saved time and expense. Facebook deleted the fake page within two days.

"This was the first phase and it happened to work. Had they not complied promptly, absolutely I would have sent a cease-and-desist order," said Stilwell, with law firm Gladstone Michel Weisberg Willner & Sloane in Marina Del Rey.

But since then, Facebook changed its reporting process. A few days ago she asked Facebook to remove a fake profile of another client, a former "American Idol" finalist. The dialog box was only large enough to enter her client's name, but not her relationship to him. To be safe, she also filed Facebook's Notice of Intellectual Property Infringement; Facebook deleted the fake site within hours and sent her a confirmation email.

"One of the unique things about Facebook is that it changes constantly," Stilwell said. "I saw Jimmy Fallon perform a stand-up comedy bit about Mark Zuckerberg having bought a modest five-bedroom house recently. The only problem, Fallon states, is that 'once you get used to it, he rearranges the furniture for no reason.'"

Facebook Page Supporting Cop-Killer

Jeff Whitmire took a roundabout yet effective route to getting a Facebook page (rather than a profile removed). Last month, two Athens-Clarke County Georgia police officers were shot in the line of duty, one fatally. Unable to attend the funeral, Whitmire created a page for community members to offer their condolences.

Then he realized someone anonymously created a page supporting alleged cop-killer Jamie Hood. Almost 2,000 people "liked" the pro-Hood page. Liked, of course, is a relative term -- people who despised Hood also connected with the page. Whitmire was horrified not just by its existence, but by extreme language and threats of violence. "It became an online race war," he said. (The suspect and wounded Officer Tony Howard are black; officer Elmer "Buddy" Christian, who was killed, was white.)

Whitmire then created a new page: Shutdown the Jamie Hood Fansite. "This is not a page to bash or speak about what should be or will be done to Jamie Hood," Whitmire posted. Instead, it urged its 13,000 followers to report the pro-Hood page to Facebook. To keep things under control, he closed the page to comments.

Jamie Hood Facebook Fan Page Causes Outrage: MyFoxATLANTA.com

Whitmire estimates that if only half the page's followers complained, Facebook would have received 6,500 reports. Still, he believes it was actually the page's creator -- a middle school student -- who took it down.

shutdown jamie hood site.jpg

"On the day it was deleted the creator posted, 'I just saw the story about this page on the news, I will be deleting it tomorrow. Ya'll know where I stand and I salute Jamie Hood.' The page was deleted not even two hours later," Whitmire says.

He credits the news media with the victory. "I feel that had it not been for the segment on FOX5 that the amount of pressure would have not been as 'real' to the actual creator." (Full disclosure: I am a former FOX5 news producer.)

While the initial pro-Hood page caused the most controversy, several more pages that both support and vilify the suspect remain online. One, which bears the same name as the deleted site, was started by a different person.

Unlike the difficulties Williams had with the fake profile, Whitmire says reporting the page was easy. Still, he says, that's not necessarily good. "That may be too simple to the extent that it doesn't require an in-depth complaint so that Facebook ... can see the severity of a reported page."

Finding a Balance

Via email, Axten says Facebook's policies try to strike "a very delicate balance between giving people the freedom to express their opinions and viewpoints -- even those that are controversial to some -- and maintaining a safe and trusted environment." When asked whether Facebook or the page's creator removed the site, Axten said Facebook generally doesn't comment on actions taken against specific accounts or pieces of content.

One frequent question about fake profiles and subjectively offensive pages is, "Who would do something like this?" It's often hard to say.

"Page administrators have the option of listing their names on the Page, but this is not required," Axten says. "People who like or comment on a Page must do so using their real identity. When we find or receive reports of people using fake names or false identities, we take action to disable their accounts. We also disable Pages when we find that the administrator is using a fake name or false identity."

The next obvious question is -- what should teens and parents do to protect themselves?
Williams worked as hard as she could to make other parents aware. "I don't want to lay down in bed at night knowing I haven't told another parent that their child is friends with a site that we have absolutely no idea who's on the other end," she says.

"The main thing, especially for kids, is to keep open communication with their parents," adds Robin Sinkhorn.

"Always speak up for yourself," actress Lauren Potter concludes, adding "Think what you type. Be careful. And don't pick on anyone else."

Terri Thornton, a former investigative reporter and TV news producer, owns Thornton Communications, an award-winning PR and social media firm. She is also a freelance editor for Strategic Finance and Management Accounting Quarterly.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

19:02

Facebook Sometimes Slow to Remove Offensive Content, Fake Profiles

When it comes to Facebook, what goes up may not come down, at least not without a fight. In many cases, the social networking giant has been slow to act when it comes to offensive content and fake profiles.

Robin Sinkhorn, mother of actress Lauren Potter, who plays Becky in the popular TV series "Glee," learned this last year. Potter has Down's Syndrome. When an onslaught of offensive messages suddenly appeared on her authorized fan page, it took her mother hours -- then days -- to delete them and block the offenders.

"When it was time to protect my daughter, it wasn't easy to do," Sinkhorn recalls. "I ended up having to delete everything -- even the pictures we wanted. [Facebook] needs to be more user-friendly for parents."

The incident had a happy ending when fans from around the world posted updates supporting Potter. The mother and daughter still use Facebook, in part to spread the word about a campaign to raise awareness that using "the R-word" (retard) in any situation -- online or off -- is not okay.

'An Absolute Nightmare'

Cathy Williams is still waiting for her happy ending. In early January, she discovered a fake Facebook profile of her 13-year-old daughter Cassidy, a good student and star athlete. Williams has struggled for three months to get the page removed.

"This has been an absolute nightmare," says the Peachtree City, Georgia, mother. "Facebook is just this giant entity that you cannot touch -- you cannot talk to. Between me and my sister it had to be reported 300 times and you never get anything," Williams said. "What does it take to get their attention?"

Privacy settings also played a role; the fake profile's tight privacy settings made it hard for Williams to see what was going on, while a classmate's wide-open settings allowed the imposter to snag Cassidy's photo.

A Facebook spokesman points out that Facebook, which is based on a "real identity culture," is self-policing.

"We provide 'report' links on nearly every page and encourage people to let us know when they see something they think might violate our standards," said Facebook's Simon Axten. "Our team of investigators reviews and takes action on reported content according to our policies."

Axten adds that Facebook takes its community standards and Statement of Rights and Responsibilities very seriously, and reacts quickly. But Williams says efforts to report the page resulted in one dead-end after another. She even recalls a message from Facebook saying it no longer accepts a form the site directed her to.

The fake profile briefly disappeared from time to time only to reappear, sometimes under the names of other middle-schoolers. The impostor's friends included teens Williams says were expelled for alleged gang activity. The angry mother pored through the school directory calling students and parents, and Cassidy texted her real friends, to no avail. Neither local police nor the Georgia Bureau of Investigation could do anything. The authorities told Cassidy's mother they could only act if the site hindered the victim's professional reputation or ability to earn income. "The laws aren't in place to protect middle school kids," she says.

In response to emailed questions, Axten provided a direct link to a form he says can be used to request information associated with an account without having to provide a subpoena or court order.

"We did all the reading of the fine print and Frequently Asked Questions with a fine tooth comb," Williams said, but had never encountered that form.

As of now, the page appears to be gone, but Williams doesn't know whether Facebook finally removed it or whether it's gone temporarily dormant as it has many times before.

Removing Fake Profiles

rachel stilwell.jpeg

California attorney Rachel Stilwell has found it relatively simple to remove fake profiles of her celebrity clients. Last year an imposter urged people to donate to a "charity" her client -- a regular on General Hospital -- had never heard of. In that case, using the "report" link saved time and expense. Facebook deleted the fake page within two days.

"This was the first phase and it happened to work. Had they not complied promptly, absolutely I would have sent a cease-and-desist order," said Stilwell, with law firm Gladstone Michel Weisberg Willner & Sloane in Marina Del Rey.

But since then, Facebook changed its reporting process. A few days ago she asked Facebook to remove a fake profile of another client, a former "American Idol" finalist. The dialog box was only large enough to enter her client's name, but not her relationship to him. To be safe, she also filed Facebook's Notice of Intellectual Property Infringement; Facebook deleted the fake site within hours and sent her a confirmation email.

"One of the unique things about Facebook is that it changes constantly," Stilwell said. "I saw Jimmy Fallon perform a stand-up comedy bit about Mark Zuckerberg having bought a modest five-bedroom house recently. The only problem, Fallon states, is that 'once you get used to it, he rearranges the furniture for no reason.'"

Facebook Page Supporting Cop-Killer

Jeff Whitmire took a roundabout yet effective route to getting a Facebook page (rather than a profile removed). Last month, two Athens-Clarke County Georgia police officers were shot in the line of duty, one fatally. Unable to attend the funeral, Whitmire created a page for community members to offer their condolences.

Then he realized someone anonymously created a page supporting alleged cop-killer Jamie Hood. Almost 2,000 people "liked" the pro-Hood page. Liked, of course, is a relative term -- people who despised Hood also connected with the page. Whitmire was horrified not just by its existence, but by extreme language and threats of violence. "It became an online race war," he said. (The suspect and wounded Officer Tony Howard are black; officer Elmer "Buddy" Christian, who was killed, was white.)

Whitmire then created a new page: Shutdown the Jamie Hood Fansite. "This is not a page to bash or speak about what should be or will be done to Jamie Hood," Whitmire posted. Instead, it urged its 13,000 followers to report the pro-Hood page to Facebook. To keep things under control, he closed the page to comments.

Jamie Hood Facebook Fan Page Causes Outrage: MyFoxATLANTA.com

Whitmire estimates that if only half the page's followers complained, Facebook would have received 6,500 reports. Still, he believes it was actually the page's creator -- a middle school student -- who took it down.

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"On the day it was deleted the creator posted, 'I just saw the story about this page on the news, I will be deleting it tomorrow. Ya'll know where I stand and I salute Jamie Hood.' The page was deleted not even two hours later," Whitmire says.

He credits the news media with the victory. "I feel that had it not been for the segment on FOX5 that the amount of pressure would have not been as 'real' to the actual creator." (Full disclosure: I am a former FOX5 news producer.)

While the initial pro-Hood page caused the most controversy, several more pages that both support and vilify the suspect remain online. One, which bears the same name as the deleted site, was started by a different person.

Unlike the difficulties Williams had with the fake profile, Whitmire says reporting the page was easy. Still, he says, that's not necessarily good. "That may be too simple to the extent that it doesn't require an in-depth complaint so that Facebook ... can see the severity of a reported page."

Finding a Balance

Via email, Axten says Facebook's policies try to strike "a very delicate balance between giving people the freedom to express their opinions and viewpoints -- even those that are controversial to some -- and maintaining a safe and trusted environment." When asked whether Facebook or the page's creator removed the site, Axten said Facebook generally doesn't comment on actions taken against specific accounts or pieces of content.

One frequent question about fake profiles and subjectively offensive pages is, "Who would do something like this?" It's often hard to say.

"Page administrators have the option of listing their names on the Page, but this is not required," Axten says. "People who like or comment on a Page must do so using their real identity. When we find or receive reports of people using fake names or false identities, we take action to disable their accounts. We also disable Pages when we find that the administrator is using a fake name or false identity."

The next obvious question is -- what should teens and parents do to protect themselves?
Williams worked as hard as she could to make other parents aware. "I don't want to lay down in bed at night knowing I haven't told another parent that their child is friends with a site that we have absolutely no idea who's on the other end," she says.

"The main thing, especially for kids, is to keep open communication with their parents," adds Robin Sinkhorn.

"Always speak up for yourself," actress Lauren Potter concludes, adding "Think what you type. Be careful. And don't pick on anyone else."

Terri Thornton, a former investigative reporter and TV news producer, owns Thornton Communications, an award-winning PR and social media firm. She is also a freelance editor for Strategic Finance and Management Accounting Quarterly.

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February 11 2011

22:05

WSJ Series Inspires 'Do Not Track' Bill from Rep. Jackie Speier



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We didn't plan it this way, but the timing was perfect. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) introduced a bill today in Congress that would give the FTC the power to create a "Do Not Track" database so people could opt out of online tracking. And her bill comes right during our special series about online privacy, which included a roundtable discussion (and debate) about the "Do Not Track" database and its feasibility. And Speier told me one of the inspirations for the bill was her outrage from reading the Wall Street Journal's What They Know series.

On one side is privacy groups such as Consumer Watchdog and the Electronic Frontier Foundation who worked with Speier on the bill. On the other side are behavioral ad firms and publishers who would prefer that massive numbers of people don't opt out from tracking, which helps them serve targeted ads. In the 5Across roundtable discussion, Yahoo's chief trust officer Anne Toth put it this way: "I think it's critical that people realize that collecting data about consumers online gives enormous benefits. Right now, advertising makes the Internet free. And people want a free Internet. And information leads to innovation and ideas. What I'm worried about most is that with 'Do Not Track' and government regulation, we throw out the baby with the bathwater and stifle innovation."

I talked with Rep. Speier today by phone and she wasn't buying that argument. She believes that the technology exists to create a one-button "Do Not Track" solution so people can opt out of tracking. Her bill is far from alone in the online privacy debate, as a flurry of bills are expected in Congress this year. Plus, she does not have a GOP co-sponsor on the bill nor is she a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. She still remains confident that the overwhelming public support for "Do Not Track" will give her bill momentum and she is "cautiously optimistic" she can get a GOP member to sign on.

The following is the entire audio of my interview with Speier this morning, and below is a transcript from that call.

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Q&A

Why did you decide the time was right to introduce this bill now?

Rep. Jackie Speier: I think there was a growing clamor for privacy protection by the public. For the longest time, we have operated with the ignorance of bliss, I guess, that nothing was going on. There have been a number of recent exposes that have made it clear that there's a lot of tracking going on. And I must tell you that until I read it in the Wall Street Journal, and their 13-part series, I didn't know that Dictionary.com was just a means by which tracking takes place. And they're using something like the dictionary to identify you and then to track you. I was pretty outraged when I read that.

What about self-regulation. A lot of companies in Silicon Valley would prefer to do it themselves. What do you think about those efforts?

Speier: I have a long history on the financial privacy side of this issue. We've had lots of efforts by the industry to offer up pseudo financial privacy protections in California when I was working on that legislation. I'm happy to see the industry step up, but I'm not interested in fig leaf solutions. I want it to be simple and straightforward for consumers to click on one button and not be tracked. I want the FTC to develop the mechanism, and a simple format so the consumer does not have to read 20 pages of legalese.

How would you define tracking? Because it's not as simple as the Do Not Call registry. There's tracking online that people see as being bad, using their information in bad ways, and there's tracking that's just analytics for a website and not really harmful.

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Speier: I think tracking is much more insidious than "Do Not Call." [Those telemarketing calls] were interrupting your dinner hour. Tracking is an activity that often times you don't even know it's going on. They're creating a secret dossier about who you are, they're making assumptions about you and then they're selling that information to third parties that then will market to you products or not, and then the information is then transferred from one source to another.

It starts to impact fundamental things like whether you can access health insurance, life insurance, what premium you're going to pay, based on assumptions they make. The example I used in the press conference today was I'm the chair of the refreshment committee of my church's bazaar so I go out and pay for 15 cases of wine and charge it to my credit card online. That information is then sold thousands of different ways to thousands of different data companies, and then it's sold again.

So let's say a life insurance company that I'd like to get life insurance from has that information and believes I'm an alcoholic. Either they don't sell me life insurance or charges me a higher premium. Or let's say I'm a prospective employee at a new company and they access this information and decide I'm an alcoholic and they don't want me as an employee. It becomes insidious.

I understand the worst-case scenarios, but what about the tracking that's done to give you recommendations on a site or you get ads that are served up that align with your interests? Some of those things aren't insidious or bad.

Speier: That's why you should have a choice. If you're going online to buy a new barbecue, you should be able to click to opt-in to see other barbecues. That's fine. That's your choice. But if you click on the target site, you know you want that barbecue and you don't want to be bothered and don't want to be tracked -- you can buy that barbecue and move on.

You talk about having one button to opt-out, but is that solution going to work or will people end up opting out of things they don't want to opt out of? Should there be more layers to this idea?

Speier: You'll still have advertisers seek you to opt in. The presumption is that somehow everyone is going to opt out. That's not necessarily the case. It's a choice.

What do you think about the solutions that the browsers have offered, from Microsoft's Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome? Do you think what they're doing is a good start?

Speier: I think it's a good start, but I think we need something uniform. I've been told Mozilla's approach [with Firefox] is one that's not enforcing [Do Not Track] so what does that mean? It's more of a fig leaf at that point.

So it's more of a suggestion. "Don't track me... please."

Speier: [laughs] What is that? What it looks like to me is that they're trying to give the appearance that they're doing something, when they're not. I've been down this road before with the financial institutions in California with the financial privacy law. A placebo isn't going to work here.

I've heard from someone at Yahoo that the "Do Not Track" list could stifle innovation and the way they do behavioral advertising. And it could hurt not just Yahoo but startups as well.

Speier: I'm not persuaded by those arguments. That argument was used with the financial privacy law in California, that it would somehow stifle innovation of financial products. It didn't stifle innovation. Credit default swaps were out there for many to engage in. I'm just not buying it.

How will your bill differ from others that are being introduced? Are you coordinating with them in some way?

Speier: I'm hoping that we will coordinate. The bill from Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) is similar, though his would be site-specific. So every time you went to a site, you'd have to click, instead of a one-stop shop for purposes of opting out. My bill is more simplified and universal.

How will the bill dovetail with what's coming out from the FTC? They are in a comment period now, and they'll come out with a final report soon. Are you working with them?

Speier: First, I want to applaud the action they have taken, but we need to give them authority so they can move forward in a meaningful way in this area. They don't presently have the authority to do what we want them to do.

Part of your bill is giving them that authority?

Speier: Yes.

Did they ask for that?

Speier: No. They realize they need it in order to be effective in this area.

How long do you think it would take to implement what you're asking for in this bill?

Speier: I think the technology is already there. I think it should be as instantaneous as the Egyptian freedom. [laughs]

Within 18 days?

Speier: Yes, within 18 days. [laughing]

*****

What do you think about the "Do Not Track Me Online" bill? Would you sign up for such a database? Do you think the FTC should have the power to set up such a database? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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18:09

On Facebook and Online, Privacy Is Only an Illusion



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As our public selves merge perceptibly with our private selves on social networks, our notions of what constitutes privacy -- arguably even the very definition of privacy -- is undergoing a radical revision.

Mark Zuckerberg audaciously quipped in 2010 that privacy was no longer a social norm. For many of the 600 million-plus users of Facebook, the idea of a "private" profile apparently persists. Yet, there arguably is no such thing.

The Illusion of Privacy

Consider a recent study [PDF file] of online social networks by Northeastern's College of Computer and Information Science.

It started with this premise: Given the known attributes of some fraction of users in an online social network, can we infer the personal details -- geographic location, interests, and schools attended -- of the remaining users?

The conclusion was perhaps predictable: Yes.

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It was the high degree of accuracy that wasn't. Even when given information on as little as 20% of users, the personal attributes of the remaining users could be determined accurately an astonishing 80% of the time. (One sample graph from the study is at left.)

The study's findings align neatly with the formulation known as homophily and defined as love of the same, a term coined by sociologists more than half a century ago. Put more simply, we are friends with people like us.

And yet this natural grouping into tribes actually inhibits privacy. We can adjust our privacy settings on Facebook, cloaking our friend lists to "friends only" or "friends of friends," yet this is a fool's errand.

"Almost all privacy mechanisms available to users today are based on access control: users can specify which other users are able to view the content or information they upload," the researchers wrote. "Our results show, however, that even information that is not provided by users can sometimes be inferred from the user's location in the network."

In other words, our online networks reflect commonalities easily inferred by even the most basic of algorithms. Just by joining -- often under the illusion of privacy -- we reveal ourselves.

Users' Gift to Advertisers

But few stop there. We share some of the most intimate details of our lives -- romantic entanglements, snapshots of children, education, and work history. We even friend and "like" brands, post news of purchases in our Facebook News Feeds, and berate companies for bad customer service.

This pervasive conversation on our collective consumption habits turns what was once one-dimensional data into a more holistic and contextualized profile of specific consumer groups.

Online networks reflect offline connections. We live near, go to church with and spend time with friends like us. Yes, online networks infuse data streams with a level of granularity never before available, but the ability for brands to isolate a certain group of people isn't exactly new.

Ironically, it's the data required by government institutions that's made traditional consumer targeting possible -- from the Census Bureau and U.S. Postal Service to birth records, court records of marriages, and even traffic tickets -- all sources that arguably spawned the multi-billion dollar direct marketing business. This data isn't optional; participation in a civilized, market-society requires it. And all of it, to varying degrees, is publicly available for companies to access and interpret.

By contrast, many of today's online advertising applications operate in the zone of halfnimity -- a middle ground between full identity and online anonymity. Terms like "targeting" and "tracking" tend to conjure more troubling notions, something comparable to a credit report or medical record.

That's not to suggest that more insidious tracking and trafficking of such information doesn't occur. Private investigators, for example, can now acquire certain profile information, such as your Facebook username, from various paid databases, and that data may be linked to other identifiers, like your Social Security number, creating a permanent history. Unlike criminal, civil, credit and driving records, use of this kind of information in a pre-employment check or background investigation is not currently limited by federal law.

A Transparent and Uncertain Future

In 2011, online behavioral marketing will be coming out of the shadows and into the spotlight. Consumers need to understand the indirect benefits of online ads and the potential tradeoffs of opting out. Brands should be telling that story, too.

Because it's not just government intervention that could pull the plug on online ads. The free, open-source AdBlock Plus (yep, the name says it all) recently became the first browser-based add-on to be downloaded over 100 million times.

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As Facebook grows ever larger and more powerful, we're increasingly caught in a zero-sum game between participation and privacy. The emerging cultural norms of transparency, openness and connectedness involve some inherent sacrifices.

In massive numbers, we are opting-in and theoretically making ourselves vulnerable -- but vulnerable to what, really? RapLeaf and other companies that sell your personal data? The People's Republic of China? The threats remain largely abstract, opaque, and seemingly academic. Persuasion is the stock-and-trade of marketers and brands, not coercion. We are not required to reveal the intimate details of our lives. Instead, we are increasingly choosing to do so.

If we are hurtling toward an irreversible rewriting of the collective definition of privacy, isn't the author all of us? With every new status update, we may be entering a Faustian bargain, but we really can't see whose hand we're shaking.

Mya Frazier is director of trends and insights at Engauge, one of the nation's largest independent advertising agencies. This article is adapted from the Engauge 2011 Digital Outlook, a comprehensive report on the future of marketing in the digital era. A former business journalist, she has been a staff writer at Advertising Age and The Cleveland Plain Dealer. You can follow her on Twitter or read her blog on Forbes.com.

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February 10 2011

19:40

5Across: Online Privacy and the 'Do Not Track' Debate



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The debate around online privacy has largely centered around advertising that is targeted at people depending on where they have been online. While somewhat creepy, those ads are perhaps the least of our worries. What many of us don't realize is that there are multiple parties tracking our moves online, some harmless and some possibly nefarious.

In fact, one of our MediaShift readers pointed out that PBS.org itself has at least seven trackers on its site:

I found that on the PBS.org site there are 7 trackers active, they are AddtoAny, Comscore Beacon, Disqus, DoubleClick, Foresee, Google AdSense, and Google Analytics...I found these because I use a Firefox add-on called 'Ghostery' that blocks trackers.

While the FTC considers a "Do Not Track" database, and Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) plans to introduce a "Do Not Track Me Online 2011" bill tomorrow in Congress, the debate about who can track us where online is heating up. The idea for such a database would be that consumers could opt-out in one simple way from all tracking online, similar to the "Do Not Call" database for telemarketers. But online, things aren't so simple. Some tracking is for analytics, some is to help tailor a site to your preferences, and some to target ads. We convened a group of privacy experts, journalists and publishers to discuss -- and debate -- the limits to what companies and government could track about us online. Check it out!

5Across: Online Privacy

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>>> Subscribe to 5Across video podcast <<<

>>> Subscribe to 5Across via iTunes <<<

Guest Biographies

Ryan Calo runs the Consumer Privacy Project at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. A graduate of Dartmouth College and Michigan Law School, Calo clerked on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and practiced privacy and telecommunications law at Covington & Burling LLP before joining Stanford Law School in 2008. Calo works on the intersection of law and technology, including privacy and robotics. His work been covered by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and other major news outlets.

Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET and runs the Privacy Inc. blog there. Previously he was a senior correspondent for CBS News' website and Washington bureau chief for Wired. He is a private pilot and lives on the San Francisco peninsula with his wife and 15-month old son.

Joanne McNabb is chief of the California Office of Privacy Protection, and is a Certified Information Privacy Professional and co-chair of the International Association of Privacy Professionals' Government Working Group. She serves on the Privacy Advisory Committee to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and is a Fellow of the Ponemon Institute. Before starting the Office of Privacy Protection, McNabb worked in public affairs and marketing, in both the public and private sectors, including five years with an international marketing company in France. She attended Occidental College and holds a master's degree in Medieval Literature from the University of California, Davis.

Lee Tien is a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit public interest group focusing on online civil liberties. He went to college at Stanford and law school at UC-Berkeley. He works on a wide range of privacy and security issues including electronic surveillance, cybersecurity, online tracking, national ID systems, location tracking, electronic health records, and the smart energy grid.

Anne Toth is the Chief Trust Officer for Yahoo, where she has managed a wide array of policy issues related to privacy, community, user-generated content, child safety, advertising standards, online accessibility, mobile products, and consumer direct marketing. Toth has been active in leading industry trade association efforts around interest-based advertising, serves on the board of directors of the Network Advertising Initiative and Future of Privacy Forum Advisory Board. She has testified before Congress in DC and the Article 29 Working Party in Brussels on matters related to online privacy. Prior to joining Yahoo, Toth was a research economist at the Fremont Group, a San Francisco-based private investment company affiliated with Bechtel.

If you'd prefer to watch sections of the show rather than the entire show, I've broken them down by topic below.

Where's the Harm?

The 'Do Not Track' Debate

Big Brother is Watching

Differing Takes on Privacy

Free Speech vs. Privacy

Credits

Mark Glaser, executive producer and host
Corbin Hiar, research assistant

Charlotte Buchen, camera

Serene Fang, audio

Location: Vega Project & Kennerly Architecture office space in San Francisco

Special thanks to: PBS and the Knight Foundation

Music by AJ the DJ

*****

What do you think? Do you like the idea of a "Do Not Track" database? How much do you worry about your privacy while going online? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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February 07 2011

19:12

Special Series: Online Privacy

"All the world's a stage," and even moreso with the rise of the Internet, online advertising and social networking. While there is no American "right to privacy" in the Constitution, there are limits to what we want companies, publishers and advertisers to do with our personal information. Do we want advertisers to serve ads based on our web surfing habits? Should we be able to opt out from that kind of tracking? How would that work? The U.S. government -- including the FTC, Commerce Department and Congress -- is considering more regulation, while the industry tries self-regulation...again. While MediaShift gave a nice guide to online privacy a couple years back, the time is right to give an in-depth look at online privacy in the age of the always-on social web.

All the Online Privacy Posts

> Will U.S. Government Crack the Whip on Online Privacy? by Jonathan Peters

Coming Soon

> Facebook privacy issue timeline by Corbin Hiar

> A lively 5Across roundtable discussion with Yahoo's Anne Toth, EFF's Lee Tien, California Office of Privacy Protection's Joanne McNabb, CNET's Declan McCullagh and Stanford's Ryan Calo. Hosted by Mark Glaser.

> Privacy issues around advertising and marketing by Mya Frazier

> How can publishers protect data of users? by Dorian Benkoil

*****

What do you think about our series? Did we miss anything? Share your thoughts on how you protect your privacy online and whether you think there should be more laws to protect your privacy.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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18:49

Will U.S. Government Crack the Whip on Online Privacy?

This week MediaShift will be running an in-depth special report on Online Privacy, including a timeline of Facebook privacy issues, a look at how political campaigns retain data, and a 5Across video discussion. Stay tuned all week for more stories on privacy issues.

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Online privacy is the new openness.

After years of telling all on the Internet, of tweeting about armpit rashes and tantric sex, we may have gone too far, shared too much. We may have lost control of the information that we reveal about ourselves and of the way others use that information. Which is a bad thing.

That's the thinking, at least, behind two government reports released at the end of 2010. The first one, produced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), outlines a plan to regulate the "commercial use of consumer data." The second one, produced by the Commerce Department, recommends that the federal government "articulate certain core privacy principles" for the Internet. Together they show that online privacy is very much on the public agenda.

FTC ENDORSES "DO NOT TRACK"

The FTC report, titled Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change, begins by noting that "consumer information is more important than ever" and that "some companies appear to treat it in an irresponsible or even reckless manner." It says data about consumer online activity and browsing habits are "collected, analyzed, combined, used, and shared, often instantaneously and invisibly."

google optout.JPGFor example, if I browse online for a product, which I often do, then advertisers could collect and share information about me, including my search history, the websites I visit and the kind of content I view. Likewise, if I participate in a social networking site, which I do, then third-party applications could access the stuff I post on my profile. Today my only lines of defense would be to adjust the privacy controls on my browser, to download a plug-in, or to click the opt-out icon that sometimes appears near an ad.

That's not good enough, according to the FTC report, which is intended to be a roadmap for lawmakers and companies as they develop policies and practices to protect consumer privacy. To that end, the FTC made three proposals.

First, companies should build "privacy protections into their everyday business practices." More specifically, they should provide "reasonable security for consumer data," they should collect "only the data needed for a specific business purpose," they should retain "data only as long as necessary to fulfill that purpose," they should safely "dispose of data no longer being used," and they should create "reasonable procedures to promote data accuracy." In addition, they should implement "procedurally sound privacy practices throughout their organizations."

Although it's unclear what would constitute a "specific business purpose," those suggestions to a great degree reflect existing law. Section 5 of the FTC Act, which prohibits unfair or deceptive practices, can be used to nail companies that fail to secure consumer information. Similarly, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act requires financial institutions to take certain steps to secure their information, and the Fair Credit Reporting Act requires consumer agencies to ensure that the entities receiving their information have a permissible reason to receive it. The latter also imposes "safe disposal" obligations on those entities.

Second, companies should "provide choices to consumers about their data practices in a simpler, more streamlined way." This would allow consumers in some transactions to choose the kind and amount of information they reveal about themselves. I say "in some transactions" because companies would have to distinguish between "commonly accepted data practices" and those "of greater concern."

The former includes ordinary transactions in which consumer consent is implied, e.g., I buy a book through Amazon, and I give the company my shipping address. No big deal, says the FTC. The latter, however, includes activities and transactions in which consent is not implied, e.g., an online publisher allows a third party to collect data about my use of the publisher's website. Big deal, says the FTC.

consumers_choice.jpgWhere consent is not implied, consumers "should be able to make informed and meaningful choices," and those choices should be "clearly and concisely described." In the context of online advertising, that means I would be able to choose whether to allow websites to collect and share information about me. The most practical way to give me that choice, according to the FTC, is to place a persistent setting on my browser to signal whether I consent to be tracked and to receive targeted ads. This "do not track" mechanism could give consumers the type of control online that they have offline with the "do not call" list for telemarketers.

Third, companies should "make their data practices more transparent to consumers." They should ensure that their privacy policies are "clear, concise and easy-to-read," and in some circumstances they should allow consumers to check out the data kept about them. Those circumstances remain unclear, but the report says if a company maintains consumer data that are used for decision-making purposes, then it could be required to allow consumers to review that data, essentially to give them the chance to correct any errors.

It's a good thing for the FTC to encourage companies to revisit their privacy policies. Most of them are long and dense and monuments to legalese, and some companies seem to notify me every week about changes to their terms and conditions. Nowhere is their ineffectiveness more apparent than in the world of mobile devices, which often spread privacy policies across dozens of screens, 50 words at a time. On the Internet, meanwhile, it would take consumers hundreds of hours [PDF file] to read the privacy policies they typically encounter in one year. That's hardly helpful to the consumer.

All in all, the FTC report has received mixed reviews. Some say its recommendations won't stop the information free-for-all, while others say it's promising and a step in the right direction. In any case, the commission will need the help of Congress to implement the plan, and that help isn't a sure thing.

COMMERCE DEPT. CALLS FOR PRIVACY CODES

The Commerce Department report, very sexily titled Commercial Data Privacy and Innovation in the Internet Economy: A Dynamic Policy Framework [PDF file], begins by noting that consumer privacy must address "a continuum of risks," such as minor nuisances and unfair surprises, as well as the disclosure of sensitive information in violation of individual rights. The report's purpose is to stimulate discussion among policymakers, and it includes recommendations in four areas.

First, the government should "revitalize" the FTC's Fair Information Practice Principles, a code that addresses how organizations collect and use personal information and the reasonableness of those practices. The amended code should "emphasize substantive privacy protection rather than simply creating procedural hurdles." The specifics are similar to those in the first section of the FTC report: the code should call on companies to be more transparent, it should articulate clear purposes for data collection, it should limit the use of data to those purposes, and it should encourage company audits to enhance accountability.

Screenshot-code.pngSecond, the government should "enlist the expertise and knowledge of the private sector" to develop voluntary codes for specific industries that promote the safeguarding of personal information. To make that happen, the Commerce Department should create a Privacy Policy Office to bring the necessary stakeholders together, and the FTC would enforce the codes once they've been voluntarily adopted.

Well, this makes me think of the old saw that socialism is good in theory but doesn't work. Whether or not that's true, too often the same can be said (truthfully) of voluntary codes. To make this scheme work, at the very least, the FTC should be given rulemaking authority to develop binding codes in the event the private sector doesn't act. Alternatively, as the report suggests, the FTC could ramp up its enforcement of existing privacy laws, to encourage companies to buy in to the voluntary codes, on the theory that the buy-in would entitle them to a legal safe harbor. In other words, complying with a voluntary code would create a presumption of compliance with any privacy legislation based on the amended Fair Information Practice Principles.

Third, the government should be mindful of its global status as a leader in privacy policy. On the one hand, it should develop a regulatory framework for Internet privacy that "enhances trust and encourages innovation," and on the other hand, it should work with the European Union and other trading partners to bridge the differences, in form and substance, between their laws and U.S. law. As the report notes, although privacy laws vary from country to country, many of them are based on similar values.

Fourth, Congress should pass a law to standardize the notification that companies are required to give consumers when data-security breaches occur. Lawmakers also should address "how to reconcile inconsistent state laws," because the differences among them have created undue costs for businesses and have made it more difficult for consumers to understand how their information is protected throughout the country.

In the privacy world my sympathies are chiefly with the consumer, but the patchwork of state security breach notification (SBN) laws is a very real challenge for businesses. Not long ago, I worked with a company that had offices in a number of states, and as a result, it had to comply with a number of different state SBN laws. They were variations on the same theme, of course, but the differences had to be accommodated. The devil was in the details, and from that work it became obvious to me that the compliance costs were high and the benefits low: Some people get better notification than others. That's neither fair for the consumers nor ideal for the company.

The reaction to the Commerce Department report, like the one to the FTC report, has been mixed. Privacy advocates have been critical of it, especially the sections that support self-regulation, but other groups and government officials have commended the Department for taking on a tough issue. For its part, the Department said it plans to incorporate the feedback into its final report, to be released later this year.

NEW COMMITTEE TO CARRY THE PRIVACY FLAG

It's also worth mentioning that in late October, the National Science and Technology Council launched a Subcommittee on Privacy and Internet Policy. Chaired by Cameron Kerry, general counsel of the Commerce Department, and Christopher Schroeder, assistant U.S. attorney general, the subcommittee's job is to monitor global privacy-policy challenges and to address how to meet those challenges.

The charter [PDF file] says the subcommittee will do three things: 1) it will produce a white paper on information privacy in the digital age, building on the work of the FTC and the Commerce Department; 2) it will develop a set of general principles that define a regulatory framework for Internet privacy, one that would apply in the U.S. and globally; and 3) it will coordinate White House statements on privacy and Internet policy, striking a balance between the expectations of consumers and the needs of industry and law enforcement.

LOOKING AHEAD

Online privacy is on the government's brain, no doubt, but it's hard to say what effect, if any, the reports will have. They strike a chord with privacy advocates concerned about the way companies use the information that consumers reveal about themselves. They show sensitivity to the needs of both consumers and businesses. And they don't contain, possibly with the exception of the "do not track" mechanism, any kind of poison pill that would make the reports in their entirety look undesirable to major stakeholders.

Still, many companies already do what the reports recommend, and many of the recommendations to a great degree reflect existing law. So it's fair to wonder how much would change even if lawmakers used the reports to draft legislation. Lots of macro-micro questions remain unanswered, too.

Would all types of businesses be subject to the new framework? What about one that collects only non-sensitive consumer data? How long would businesses be required to retain consumer data? Is there a principled way to come up with a time period? Should companies be allowed to charge a fee to consumers for them to access information that the company maintains about them? If so, how much?

That's just a small sample of the questions that the FTC and Commerce Department need to answer before moving ahead, and they've requested help from interested parties. Readers should feel free to weigh in by contacting the agencies directly; otherwise, drop a comment in the box below.

Jonathan Peters is a lawyer and the Frank Martin Fellow at the Missouri School of Journalism, where he's working on his Ph.D. and specializing in the First Amendment. An award-winning freelancer, he has written on legal issues for a variety of newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at jonathan.w.peters@gmail.com.

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August 21 2010

00:24

4 Minute Roundup: Facebook Places Wants to Be Turned Off

news21 small.jpg

4MR is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

In this week's 4MR podcast I look at the recently launched Facebook Places location feature. While the social network touts it as a great way to tell your friends where you are in the physical world, others worry about the privacy implications. In fact, the most popular stories on the subject are telling people how to turn it off. I talked with Gawker staff writer Adrian Chen about his take on how Facebook could have made it easier to turn Places off.

Check it out:

4mrbareaudio82010.mp3

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Listen to my entire interview with Adrian Chen:

chen final.mp3

Background music is "What the World Needs" by the The Ukelele Hipster Kings via PodSafe Music Network.

Here are some links to related sites and stories mentioned in the podcast:

Facebook Places

Who, What, When, and Now...Where at the Facebook blog

The First Thing You Should Do With Facebook Places - Don't Let Other People Tag You at Gawker

Facebook Places Privacy Controls Get EFF Approval at eWeek

Why I'm Not Using Facebook Places at Jolie O'Dell's blog

How to Disable Facebook Places at Huffington Post

How To Disable Facebook Places at ReadWriteWeb

Facebook Adds Location Check-Ins Through Foursquare, Gowalla, and Yelp at LifeHacker

How to Disable Facebook Places at LifeHacker

Facebook gets its hands on check-in startup Hot Potato at SocialBeat

Also, be sure to vote in our poll about what you think about Facebook Places:




What do you think about Facebook Places?survey software

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

news21 small.jpg

4MR is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

May 04 2010

07:41

Advertising Age: Calls for Facebook privacy regulation could hit publishers

A US senator has written to the country’s Federal Trade Commission asking for the development of guidelines for how individual’s information on Facebook can be used.

The letter from Senator Charles Schumer follows Facebook’s launch of its Open Social Graph Platform – a series of new tools and functionality for the social network, including deeper links with third-party sites. The network’s new “like” feature, for example, has already been put into use by numerous news sites, including the Washington Post.

The flap couldn’t come at a worse time for online advertising, facing the very real prospect that it will be regulated in the form of privacy legislation that would require publishers, networks or marketers to receive specific consent to use consumer data for a variety of purposes on the web.

(…) Of course, Facebook needs to default to openness because that’s where the service derives its viral nature. The more that is shared, the faster the Facebook web grows.

Full story at this link…

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