UPDATE: Arts and Crafts Site Etsy.com Thinks Privacy is NOT Overrated

UPDATE: It didn’t take long for the controversy rippling through the blogosphere surrounding the shift in Etsy’s privacy policy to get the attention of the site’s managers.  I got a comment, as you can see below, within 24 hours of my post about the change.  As an Etsy customer, myself, I was glad to see that they had come to their senses and reversed the policy of making user profiles and real names public by default.  It’s another example in a long line of situations where communities unite online to fight back against incremental concessions from the services they come to rely on.  There’s two things going on, as I see it that makes this particularly interesting.  First, it’s a difficult balancing act that companies like Etsy.com must walk between cultivating a community and protecting privacy.  I don’t have a huge problem with sites trying to make money, as I believe I made clear.  I just don’t like it when they aren’t up front about it.  Few companies ever give customers a clear explanation of what changes were made when they issue new service contracts.  It makes some sense that they would avoid doing so for fear that the summary isn’t as clear as necessary to avoid someone relying on it to their detriment and then litigating.  Absent mandatory redlines (changes to agreements posted with tracked changes), we will likely see only occasional instances of clearly worded update notices because they are more expensive to produce and commercially superfluous a majority of the time.  NPR’s Planet Money just did a great story about this same sort of tug-of-war over at banks.  It’s only when major changes are afoot that people sit up and take notice.

Which leads to the second interesting thing about this situation.  Over and over again, the online community itself has functioned as a de facto legal first-responder, finding problematic policies and then spreading the word to others via social networks and blogs.  Without any hard data I can’t point to a trend, but anecdotally, it seems like more and more prevalent occurrence for people to push back against company policy changes.  With relatively few economic benefits to reading online standard form contracts (like license agreements or privacy policies), due to the lack of individual ability to negotiate most people just skip them.  But as with many of the other changes wrought by Web 2.0, we have seen that some people, however, are more diligent and when they find something troubling, they sound the alarm.  They create a social good, even if they aren’t setting out to do that.  It’s like a crowd-sourced watchdog agency.  It is difficult to predict if users will continue to act as a reliable source of information but it is good to see that there is an alternative to simply leaving things up to corporate benevolence or government regulation.

Long live the Crowd!

Original post follows:

——-

I like Etsy.  The wife is a huge fan.  She has an ongoing wish list and checks the site religiously.  If you’re not familiar with it, Etsy is an open arts and crafts marketplace where people sell really nifty stuff and cut out the middle man.  It’s sort of like an online flea market, only it caters to the hip and trendy.  It’s a great way to directly support

Etsy.com Home Page

Butterfly themed items

independent artisans and crafty people of all sorts.  You can shop by item type, theme or color (if you need a very specific item to complete a particular outfit, for example).   Like I said, very nifty.

So it came as a bit of a shock to find out that Etsy has been making a total mess of things lately with regard to privacy.  With the apparent goal of making the site more social and community oriented, Etsy made changes to its privacy policy to share users’ real names. Here’s the language in their privacy policy, with the newly added language in bold.

  • Your username, Etsy ID or alias is displayed throughout Etsy (and so available to the public) and is connected to all of your Etsy activity. Other people can see your purchases, items for sale, store, feedback, ratings and associated comments. You have the option to publicly display your full name.

This is all fine and good when people are given the option and can freely choose whether they wish for their shopping activities to be disclosed or not.  Some people love sharing what they just bought.  Others do not.  Word on the street, however, has it that Etsy decided to make users’ personal info (including purchases and reviews) public by default.  There is an option to customize what information one shares with the public by going to settings, but what’s obnoxious is that they apparently aren’t really telling anyone that this is the plan.  People are blogging that all they got was an email saying the privacy policy would be changing, but didn’t get any specifics as to what the changes would be or how they would work.  I’ve read reports that the new policy is retroactive and will display orders as far back as 2009 or older.

This move appears to be in a legal gray area.  Privacy policies are another of the one-sided contracts we all agree to, either by actively clicking an “OK” button or passively using the site (so-called click-wrap and browse-wrap agreements).  Some jurisdictions have held them to be binding, such that companies cannot change them without notice, but since Etsy at least told people there would be changes, they probably are within the letter of the law.  It’s less clear whether the fact that the change is retroactive and isn’t clearly spelled out (at least not to me) keeps them on the good side of the law.  The interesting thing in the weeks ahead, of course, will be to see if there are enough people out there who feel violated enough to make an issue of it and force Etsy to be more up front.

Clearly what Etsy is trying to do is find a way to monetize the large customer base and build a social graph that will take them to the next level.  Personal information is the currency of the Facebook Age and it makes sense that the people running Etsy are in business to make money.  It’s sad that the trend of semi-secretly revising license agreements and privacy policies is continuing uninhibited.  It would be nice if more people would do it out in the open.  Facebook, despite its relentless goal of dismantling users’ privacy, has at least had to create a much more robust privacy settings and notification system in response to the uproar that users raise every time it changes its rules.  For instance, it ticked me off that I had to think about removing my address from my profile so it wasn’t publicly searchable, even it’s in the phone book, so I ultimately left it in there.

I get that companies always need to look for new revenue streams and right now that stream is the gushing river of data that can be mined for behavioral advertising.  It’s not like the information that we think is private is actually as secret as we would hope.  Ignorance was bliss: unless you go to a store wearing a disguise and pay with cash you’ve never touched with your bare hands, you leave a lot of evidence behind.  The point of the analogy is that it’s all about how hard others have to work to link you to evidence that you leave behind.  If you shop wearing a disguise, it’s at least a conscious choice to make it harder to know what you’re doing.

Since we are unlikely to see any serious rollbacks in what information about us becomes publicly available, I will continue to advocate for a system that at least requires any changes to be highlighted so people don’t have to run a comparison through the WayBackMachine every single time.  It’s just the polite thing to do.

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About Justin Kwong

An attorney in the Twin Cities and adjunct professor at William Mitchell College of Law where I teach a seminar on the law of virtual worlds.
This entry was posted in Multi-user Online Environments, Privacy, Social Networks and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to UPDATE: Arts and Crafts Site Etsy.com Thinks Privacy is NOT Overrated

  1. Having your address on facebook or other sites is very different than if you were to have it in the phone book IMO. Having your address on facebook also provides readers with photos and additional personal information all in one spot. If you’re merely looking through the phone book, you have none of this extra information and cannot even verify, without extra work, that it is the person you are looking for. I think women also have a different view on this issue because we are, perhaps, more paranoid that a picture and personal info might get unwanted attention. A simple listing in a phone book included with millions of other simple and boring listings, however, gathers no such attention.

  2. Adam Brown says:

    Hi, Adam Brown from Etsy here.

    Just wanted to let you know that we have resolved this. As of right now, all your purchases and feedback on Etsy are now automatically set to private.

    You can read more about it in our blog: http://www.etsy.com/storque/handmade-life/rethinking-feedback-12472/

  3. Pingback: Update on the Etsy Privacy debacle… « Esscentual Alchemy

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