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Privacy and Personalization in Social Media

Researched, compiled, and edited by Caleb Brown, Amanda Seale, Kevin Greene, and Nick Thrailkill, students at Lebanon Valley College.


This text was compiled to give anyone interested in social media, their business practices, and their controversies regarding privacy and personalization, a quick view into these complex topics. By offering these links and summaries, the writers hope to inform readers of the broad themes surrounding social networks and to encourage readers to learn more about social media through their own research.

Social Network Privacy Policies

Tumblr- Tumblr has adapted their privacy policy from Automattic (  They have a license called the Creative Commons Share-Alike license that allows Tumblr to post your personal contributions to the site. Tumblr collects statistics about your behavior and ensures that your personal information is stored on restricted database servers. Address book data will only be used to look up friends and not be stored or repurposed and you will be able to request and receive a summary of all the personal information about you that Tumblr has stored in its systems. Facebook- Facebook’s privacy policy is very robust and is controlled by a company called TRUSTe – EU Safe Harbor. Facebook is always reminding its users that Facebook is about sharing information with others. Facebook shares information about you that is marked under the tag “everyone” with search engines that then include this information in their users' search results.  But Facebook also says that they keep your account information on a secure server behind a firewall. Twitter- Twitter states that you consent to the collection, transference, manipulation, storage, disclosure, and other uses of your information as described in its privacy policy. You use Twitter to share information with the world and the company may share or disclose all information you post as long as you consent to the disclosure of your information. MySpace- MySpace reminds its users that they are voluntarily providing the company with their personal information. MySpace uses cookies and similar tools to customize the content and advertising that users receive based on their profile information. MySpace also informs you that third party advertisers use certain technologies to access your information and provides you with an opt-out option buried deep in the text of this privacy policy.

The Consumer in Social Media

Personalized Advertisements

What are they?

Google and Mozilla are allowing users to opt out of behavioral advertising. Chrome, the Web browser by Google, is going to have an extension for users to block certain advertisers and Mozilla would include a "do-not-track" option in the browser. The Federal Trade Commission is considering coming up with a "do-not-track" list, similar to the "do-not-call" list for telemarketers. Many social media networks find it hard to avoid behavioral advertising because the features that are on the sites rely on behavioral advertising for their success. Marketers and data companies know more about users than people may think and this will soon effect a change in customized advertising. Some users might see different versions of web sites and others could receive different offers. Cookies are the means by which companies obtain unique user information. What users don’t know is that they can delete cookies from their computers. Some companies such as Experian and Acxiom claim that they know over 1,000 pieces of information about people. By using this data, customization can be maximized. Marketers are looking to have more specific and unique ads for the user. Depending on each statistics about a user, the user will receive different offers or even get great deals if they are not a common online shopper. Invasion of privacy soon becomes an issue since there is going to be a lot of customization of advertisements.

How do they work? Social media networks as well as other websites need some sort of revenue to keep the site up and running. Many online advertisements take the form of static display ads. has come up with an idea to have real time ads on the page. The ads would come from social media network sites. Real time ads are easy to set up and appear to have a better reaction to the users. In-stream advertising as well as making ads more social are different ways that companies are trying to increase revenue. In real world shopping, clerks at retail stores immediately target a customer on style of clothing, age, and other physical appearances to determine how to sell something to them. The online world of marketing and advertising is not quite like that yet because it is more static and doesn’t show different things to different people. In order to make marketing more dynamic, companies must change their websites so that they are based off business objectives. It allows personalization to happen online by using offline means.

What problems arise from them? Certain applications on social media sites give data about people to advertising companies. Some of the information being transferred were people’s user IDs, which then can be looked up on social networking sites. Someone could see a user's name, photos, age, and other personal information depending on what is displayed on the page. Many investigations have looked into this problem of information being leaked to another party. Users' privacy can be at risk even when they think that their personal information is secure. In this article published in October 2010, Reuters reporter Anand Basu discusses a Wall Street Journal investigation in which reporters discovered that simply by using Facebook, users were inadvertently allowing advertising and Internet tracking companies to learn their and their friends' usernames and access personal information they enter on Facebook. Realizing that this practice violated their own privacy policy and affected millions of users that increased their privacy settings as high as Facebook would allow, Facebook spokespersons and operators told the Journal that they would try to limit the exposure of users' personal information to related sites. However, Facebook officials also maintained that even if a related site learned a user's ID, they would not have the permission necessary to access the user's personal information as shown on Facebook.

How Do Social Networks Personalize Content for Users?

Social Networks and Websites that Personalize Content for Users This link comes from the social networking site Facebook and describes how Facebook uses users' names, networks, and other "public" information to make a user's experience on another affiliate site, such as Bing, more personalized to that user. This page serves as an important primary source about personalizing information on the World Wide Web. This article, written by software news editor George Norman, describes how two popular social sites, Facebook and Rotten Tomatoes, have decided to become partners in personalization. In doing so, Rotten Tomatoes allows its users to access more relevant movie reviews based on their own and their friends' own movie preferences as long as the user is signed into Facebook. This article serves as an example of how social networking sites and affiliate sites share information in order to attract and maintain more users.

What Information Do Websites Seek for Personalization? In this article, Tim Connealty of Cloud Computing News explains that as a personalization partner with Facebook, Bing now includes the websites that users' friends have liked on Facebook and Facebook profiles in the results of a user's search. By doing so, Bing hopes to make its search engine capabilities to appeal to users who rely on "their friends' opinions when making a decision online." In this article published in November 2007, Information Week columnist Thomas Claburn discusses the large range of information, such as age, gender, school, friends, and interests, that social networks gather from their users in order to sell ad space to affiliate sites. Claburn then explains how this personal information allows for more targeted advertising, but also expresses concern about Facebook's nonchalant attitude towards possible misuse of users' personal information in its privacy policy. In this article published in May 2010, CNET News columnists Elinor Mills and Declan McCullagh discuss how social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace sent usernames to other affiliate websites when users moved from the social networking site to another website without first logging out of the social networking site.  Once the affiliate website receives the username, it can then determine other personal information about the user found on social networking sites in order to design and deliver targeted ads.  Although social networks have been working hard to make sure that usernames aren't revealed when users move from a social networking site to an unrelated site, many social networking sites maintain that this practice poses no threats to users' privacy.

Legal Issues

Government-Enforced Privacy Laws The National Conference of State legislation provides links to state laws concerning policies for the Internet. These laws are state responses to concerns arising from privacy over the Internet. The Bureau of Consumer and Protection Business Center provides information about complying with federal laws on various Internet security and legal issues. It provides articles, case highlights, laws, rules, guides, and compliance documents. This site is good for businesses researching how to comply with federal laws concerning privacy and security of individuals on the Internet.

Previous Privacy Issues

Lawsuits in which the Social Network Changed its Privacy Policy This case involves Twitter and shows how the company did not use proper security measures to prevent unauthorized access to personal information. Twitter did not comply with security laws and allowed access to personal information of accounts to all of its employees including the authority to reset passwords for Twitter accounts. In 2009 intruders gained access to an employee’s account that had a common dictionary word for a password and only included lowercase letters. These intruders sent tweets from user accounts that included Barack Obama and Fox News in their body copy. Twitter was found at fault for failing to use reasonable and appropriate security measures. The video shows how a young girl finds out that her picture was used for campaign in Australia for a Virgin Mobile campaign. She never gave the company permission to use her picture. The problem is trying to figure out which laws were broken or that apply because her privacy was invaded. There are a bunch of copyright issues and other claims that are being said.

Defamation of Character Suits The article begins with a definition of defamation as "spoken or written words that falsely and negatively reflect on a living person's reputation." Then the author explains that the Communications Decency Act provides legal immunity for liability for defamation to online service providers as long as the providers do not actively create the potentially defamatory content. Furthermore, the author says that the actual creators of the defamatory content are legally liable for their actions in court and advises readers to secure an attorney well-versed in cyberlaw if they seek to take a Web defamation case to court. The author begins this article by explaining that no matter the differences in speed and information density that exist between the Internet and the World Wide Web and traditional media, all forms of media are subject to defamation laws. The author then notes that the growth of social media has allowed persons to share originally private comments to a much broader audience, but that persons must make sure that their comments do not harm the reputations of any members of the larger audience. The article concludes by describing a defamation case involving Twitter and predicts that libel cases against Twitter will become much more prevalent in the future.