Think LinkedIn is Free? You Got Sold!

privacyIt seems every social network overextends its privileges with users once a year if not more. In the past the culprit has most often been Facebook, changing its Terms of Service and upgrading its platform to create just a bit more vulnerability for its users. It’s become an almost humorous pattern of overreaching only to retreat slightly in reaction to inevitable user outrage.

Today LinkedIn pulled a Facebook.

LinkedIn launched its own social ad network, which utilized users images and profile information in advertisements that would be served on the site, presumably to their contacts. LinkedIn really should have seen this coming — a few years back when Facebook did the same thing it experienced a user backlash.

What’s the fuss? Social network users expect the opportunity to select whether their likeness is used for profit. In both Facebook and LinkedIn’s case, users were initially opted in to the ad programs by default.

Now LinkedIn has stepped back just as Facebook did, claiming in an “I’m sorry but we told you so” blog post that the user trust was of utmost importance:

In early June, we announced changes to our privacy policy — including the new ad format’s opt-out policy — ahead of the first small test of these social ads. I also reiterated the same during the launch of social ads, explaining how members could opt-out of sharing their recommendations with their network.

The problem? Had LinkedIn taken a passive approach and introduced the social ad platform by spelling out an easy way for users to opt in to appearing in such ads — even perhaps offering incentive — it would have been fine. But automatically signing users up to appear in ads can be seen as exploitative and aggressive. Having corrected itself by pulling back on using user info and images, LinkedIn might wish to make amends by offering incentives to encourage users to participate in the social ads.

Facebook, by example of its incredible success, is not a normal company and likewise neither is LinkedIn. Both have found great success not without making relatively big mistakes. In March 2006, Mark Zuckerberg turned down a $750 million offer for Facebook insisting the upstart social network was worth $2 billion. In the first half of 2011 alone, Facebook’s valuation has been estimated at $50 billion to $100 billion.

But I digress. No matter what nonsense social networks put in their terms of service, the user will always prevail when it comes to a base level of privacy settings. These networks may be free but only at the price that the services take advantage of and in many cases sell its users. Once opted in to the network (by simply agreeing to the Terms of Service) the rules are always liable to change, most often in the interest of shareholders, and in the case of LinkedIn, with its stock still soaring at nearly 50 percent above its price when it hit the open market 3 months ago, keep an eye out for more creative maneuvers to capitalize on its 120 million user profiles.

There are consumer protections against such behavior, though not so much in America. But LinkedIn’s move this morning may have violated European law.

Photo by alancleaver_2000 used under Creative Commons license.

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