LinkedIn’s privacy policy changes underscore a larger threat to users

LinkedIn screenshot

LinkedIn has caused quite a fuss in the last few days with its changes to its privacy policy on 16 June 2011 enabling it to make use of users’ profile photos and names in what it terms “social advertising”, among other things. What is more interesting is how it gave itself the right to do this. The clause in the privacy policy dealing with this is 2(K) which states the following:

Advertising and Endorsements on LinkedIn

In order to deliver relevant and valuable ads to you and your network, LinkedIn may use your name and profile photo in connection with social advertising based on content shared on LinkedIn. This advertising may include the fact that you have recommended or endorsed a product or service on LinkedIn, followed a company, joined Groups or conversations, established or added content to your profile, etc., and will only be displayed to your LinkedIn network. You can opt-out of allowing your name and/or profile photo to be used in social ads here.

The mechanism LinkedIn uses to make changes to its privacy policy is set out in clause 5(C) which states the following:

Changes to this Privacy Policy

We may update this Privacy Policy at any time, with or without advance notice. In the event there are significant changes in the way we treat your personally identifiable information, or in the Privacy Policy document itself, we will display a notice on the LinkedIn website or send you an email, so that you may review the changed terms prior to continuing to use the site. As always, if you object to any of the changes to our terms, and you no longer wish to use LinkedIn, you may close your account. Unless stated otherwise, our current Privacy Policy applies to all information that LinkedIn has about you and your account.

Using the LinkedIn Services after a notice of changes has been sent to you or published on our site shall constitute consent to the changed terms or practices.

This mechanism is not unique to LinkedIn. It is common in virtually all website terms and conditions and privacy policies and is fairly essential for the ongoing maintenance of a site and its continued evolution. In South Africa this sort of change is permissible where the provider notifies users of the change in the service’s terms and conditions and gives users an opportunity to stop using the service.

What is problematic about this particular matter and how LinkedIn words its legal documents is the extent to which the terms and conditions and privacy policy go. I wrote about this in February 2009 and, at the time, argued that as bad as Facebook’s terms and conditions were at the time, LinkedIn’s are potentially far worse. At the time I first wrote about LinkedIn’s terms and conditions, I focused on the license provisions in its User Agreement which remain in the current version of the User Agreement. I wrote the following:

As I mentioned above, the license LinkedIn takes from its users is very broad and it bears repeating:

… a nonexclusive, irrevocable, worldwide, perpetual, unlimited, assignable, sublicenseable, fully paid up and royaltyfree right to us to copy, prepare derivative works of, improve, distribute, publish, remove, retain, add, and use and commercialize, in any way now known or in the future discovered, anything that you submit to us, without any further consent, notice and/or compensation to you or to any third parties …

The license covers anything users submit to LinkedIn. This obviously includes biographical information but it also includes the valuable knowledge users share with each other in LinkedIn’s fora and Q&A service. These services include shared knowledge across a number of industries from users who are, themselves, frequently experts in their fields. All of this knowledge falls under the scope of this license and can be exploited commercially without any regard to its users’ wishes. They have, after all, agreed to these terms. Just to be clear, LinkedIn does not appear to claim ownership of this knowledge or information (in fact, given its position in the OpenSocial community and is association with organisations like Plaxo which advocate user control over their data, I suspect LinkedIn would deny any suggestion that it claims ownership of user content and knowledge) but its license is so broad as to parallel ownership rights. The only thing it seems not to claim is what is known as bare dominium which is the last vestige of ownership the user retains, along with his or her rights to exploit his or her own content and knowledge.

The license applies not just to content you may contribute directly to the service (for example, that biographical data Amanda referred to in her post) but also to “any User generated content, ideas, concepts, techniques and data” you submit to LinkedIn. In addition to the knowledge users submit through the Q&A service daily, consider the number of applications that are available to LinkedIn users and which enable users to “submit” slideshows from Slideshare, blog posts, travel data, uploaded files and business ideas and tips in its groups. If you contribute any information and knowledge through those or other tools, consider whether you are comfortable having that information and knowledge exploited for profit by the service that you perhaps expected to play the role of a facilitator and platform, rather than your competitor.

This controversy points to a larger threat to LinkedIn users and serves as a caution to people who use other services. The underlying changes to LinkedIn’s terms and conditions have occurred largely unseen (were you aware of the changes in June?) and even where they do bubble up to the surface, few users read the terms and conditions and the proposed changes until after they have been effected and the controversy hits the media. As LinkedIn’s current terms and conditions stand, LinkedIn stands to benefit considerably from users’ contributions to the service, and inordinately so. The social advertising issue is just icing on the cake. If you use LinkedIn extensively (at least, more than just maintaining a profile), it is a good idea to carefully consider whether you are comfortable with LinkedIn having the rights it has over your content and your profile data.

As users we have little cause for complaint if we fail to exercise basic due diligence and satisfy ourselves that we are comfortable with the rights our social services take in respect of our profiles and content.

Update: One of my contacts on Google+ pointed out this post on the LinkedIn blog which went up yesterday and which addresses the social ads issue fairly well:

Our core guiding value is Members First. And, with regards to the social ads we’ve been testing, we’re listening to our members. We could have communicated our intentions — to provide more value and relevancy to our members — more clearly.

Most importantly, what we’ve learned now, is that, even though our members are happy to have their actions, such as recommendations, be viewable by their network as a public action, some of those same members may not be comfortable with the use of their names and photos associated with those actions used in ads served to their network.

So, we will be changing how these types of social ads look, from this:

Before: Social Ads

To this:

After: Social Ads

Trust is the foundation upon which the LinkedIn platform is built. We’ll continue to work hard to earn and maintain your trust, while delivering the most valuable and relevant experience we can.

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