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
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.
- 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 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.