Their View | Facebook experiment illustrates need for online users’ bill of rights

July 5, 2014 

The following editorial appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on July 2:

Creepy doesn’t begin to describe Facebook’s 2012 psychological experiment on 700,000 of its unwitting users. Any attempt to manipulate the emotional state of consumers is unconscionable. It reflects poorly on the entire tech community, confirming privacy activists’ worst fears.

This public relations disaster, coming on the heels of the NSA spying revelations, reasserts the pressing need for Silicon Valley to produce an online users’ bill of rights. The alternative is an inevitable downward spiral of confidence in tech companies and their products. Could government regulation be far behind?

Social media and software companies have been hiding behind user agreements to excuse blatant invasions of privacy. Facebook’s data use agreement is nearly as long as the Book of Revelations and about as comprehensible. To sum it up: In the event of anything short of an apocalypse, Facebook is covered.

And if anyone out there claims to carefully read all the terms and conditions for a web site before clicking “Accept” to join it – get out the salt shaker.

The basis for an online bill of rights must be full transparency. Social media users should not have to go through a 8,000 words of legalese to know what they’re agreeing to.

It would help to have a shorthand summary of a user agreement in plain language. If something jumps out at users, they can read the whole thing. The Federal Trade Commission should look at requiring this, along the lines of the Food and Drug Administration labels that summarize the ingredients of food products.

The summary should include who will have access to a user’s data and how it can be used. Are photographs shared? Are locations tracked? Are online purchases recorded? Are lists of acquaintances compiled? Are political or religious affiliations shared? Are online searches tracked? These are all yes or no answers. Details can be a click away.

At a minimum, users should have access to an annual report of the material being collected and what individuals or businesses have purchased any personal information. They should be able to opt out of having their personal data sold for any purpose.

Companies such as Facebook and Google contribute enormously to Silicon Valley’s economy, creating services used by hundreds of millions of people a day. They’ve made billions by mining the data they collect from those users and selling it to companies that profit further from it.

Good for them. But they owe their customers basic honesty. And they shouldn’t play mind games with the people from whom they profit.

The European Union is ahead of the United States in protecting personal information. Brazil passed an Internet bill of rights in April limiting the data that online companies can collect from users.

Silicon Valley should take the initiative to offer Americans the same protections. If it doesn’t, the industry’s reputation will continue to unravel. And companies won’t be able to blame NSA snoops for it.

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