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A look at the privacy controls at the major social networking sites


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Social Networking is red hot these days. MySpace may have reached a plateau and be headed for decline, but Facebook, LinkedIn, Tagged, and Hi5 are steadily rising in popularity and here to stay.

However, along with their popularity come concerns about privacy and security and with good reason. By their very nature social networking sites encourage the sharing of personal info, and while in most cases this is beneficial and safe, scammers know the huge audiences these sites command and do everything they can to take advantage of them. Another issue with these sites has been with their invite policies. In the past sites like Classmates and Reunion.com have gotten in hot water with their shady invite system, which didn’t clearly inform members that their entire address book would be sent invites nor allow them to opt out of doing so. So how are the top social networking sites doing? Here’s a look, complete with grades:

Facebook: This is currently the king of social networking sites with over 400,000 million members. At one time I would have given them an A+ for their privacy and email features but that changed earlier this year when they revamped their privacy tools, and not for the better. Previously users could chose exactly what information they wanted to share with the world, but after the revamp they discovered they were forced to show their profile photo, location, and all the pages and groups they are a member of. This didn’t go over well with many members, especially those who used photos of their children as their profile photos. They’ve also started indexing posts made to fan pages and groups on Google in real time. Facebook members who are members of 12 step groups and other types of support groups on the site aren’t happy about that. Their invite feature is solid however-it won’t automatically spam your contact list, and they’ve cracked down on the flood of app spam as well. Rouge apps are still a big problem thanks to their lax app vetting. B+

MySpace: The granddaddy of them all has seen better days, but the site is still going strong and is still popular with musicians and bands. The site has excellent privacy tools that allow you to custom tailor who you want to see your page, what on your page you want them to see, and what types of people and groups you will accept invites from. You can also opt out of every type of mailing and notification MySpace offers if you want. The site itself may be in need of an overhaul but their privacy tools are top notch. A

Tagged: At one time Tagged had found itself in the midst of a PR mess and several lawsuits as a result of its shady invite process, which repeatedly spammed the address books of its users.

Happily, the site has re-tooled and with it has turned over a new leaf. It no longer spams address books and after settling a lawsuit with NY Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, adopted new privacy reforms and simplified the registration process. It’s also become a member of the Social Media Advertising Consortium, which is a trade organization dedicated to increasing and maintaining advertising standards within Social Media. They even sued a spammer and won! The registration process is simple and privacy is a top priority. Users over 18 are blocked from accessing the profiles of underage users and all users are able to completely customize their email preferences, choosing exactly what types of emails to receive from the site and which to block. Alas, like Facebook they force users to show their profile photo and location and also their age, all things that the user should be allowed to decide whether to share or not. Despite that they are definitely much improved! B+

Hi5: This site is extremely popular in Latin America and claims to be the third most popular social networking site in the world. Unfortunately it has a long ugly history of sending spam invites-in fact after you register you are presented with a nag screen asking you to “check your address book” by giving the site your email address and password. A drop down list reveals it’s prepared to check just about every popular webmail service and ISP. Users who hand over the info promptly spam everyone in their address books with invites to the service. It does offer privacy tools for profiles and email preferences but the spam invites leave a bad taste in one’s mouth. In tiny print they say they won’t contact your friends without your permission, but experience and the tons of complaints a Google search turned up say otherwise. D

Bebo: This site, whose name stands for “Blog Early, Blog Often” is currently owned by AOL. I can’t say much about there privacy standards because their registration tool is broken. No matter what email address I used it returned an “Email can not be used” error. I tried Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail and Roadrunner addresses before I gave up. F

LinkedIn: This is by far the best site for those that are serious about the networking part of social networking. It’s a quieter, more refined version of Facebook minus the distractions of Farmville, Mafia Wars, videos, and app invites. Users have an in-depth business profile showcasing their past and present employers/positions, and a wealth of social groups to interact with others in their field. Like other sites it offers you the chance to invite friends but there is a very clear and easy to see “Skip This” link and you’re not asked again. The only emails the site sends are a weekly update of your contacts’ activity and notifications that someone has invited you to join their network, and they can be turned off if you wish. (If you join any groups you may receive messages from them as well-it’s left up to you) Unlike other social networking sites it allows you to completely block your profile from public view, or decide exactly what info to share if you do make it public. This is a top notch site all the way. A+

Social networking is exploding in popularity, and that means more and more people will be using it to share personal information and connect with others. This makes privacy an increasingly important subject and one I hope these sites will either continue to make a priority or begin to. After all, the success of these sites depends on the willingness of users to trust them with large amounts of personal info. If they misuse this trust they will find themselves sinking fast. Spam belongs in the grocery aisle, not in our inboxes.

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