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LinkedIn Backtracks Over User Privacy Changes

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LinkedIn has relented, following public pressure, after it quietly changed its users’ privacy settings

Professional social networking website LinkedIn has performed a public climbdown and admitted it could have communicated its intentions around social ads more clearly.

The controversy began earlier this week when it was revealed that LinkedIn had quietly changed the default privacy settings for its user profiles back in June, so that third parties could access users’ information.

Although LinkedIn did prefix its official policy with a summary, it was buried in a document that was 6,400 words long. To make matters worse, LinkedIn did not explicitly inform its users of the changes.

Partial U-Turn

Users were unaware their default setting allowed their names and photos to be used for third-party advertising, but now a LinkedIn executive has responded publicly to the issue.

Ryan Roslansky, LinkedIn’s director of product marketing conceded in a blog post that LinkedIn could have communicated its intentions around social ads more clearly, although he did point out that members were notified via the official blog and banner ads on the site.

“Over the last few days, some of you may have read stories or blog posts about new forms of advertising that we are testing on our site, called “social ads” wrote Roslansky. “Since the launch, we’ve also been gathering feedback from our users and we hear you loud and clear.”

Roslansky explained that LinkedIn had changed the privacy policy back in early June, including its new ad format opt-out policy. He assured LinkedIn users that the only information that is used in social ads is information that is already publicly available and viewable by “anyone in your network.”

“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,” he admitted.

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

Privacy Change

So what is LinkedIn proposing?

Essentially Roslansky has promised that LinkedIn will be changing the look of social advertisements so that actual names and photos of LinkedIn members are not included. The adverts will instead include a link to other people who are in a users’ network, who follow the advertiser on LinkedIn.

Paul Ducklin, Sophos head of technology (Asia-Pacific) and the man who flagged the issue, was quick to respond in another blog posting. He contragulated LinkedIn on the quick response but said he was not happy that LinkedIn has not switched to an opt-in approach, instead of the opt out approach (opt-out means it is on by default until the user gets around to turning it off).

Opt-In Needed

“Yesterday, I wrote about LinkedIn’s recent Privacy Policy changes, by means of which the company snuck in the right to use your name and photo in adverts placed by third parties,” wrote Ducklin. “You weren’t offered the choice to enable this new feature at will, because it was turned on by default for everyone.”

“Crudely put, and in my own words, LinkedIn gave itself the right to mine your usage habits to determine what products and services you’re interested in, and then to use your name and photo in what amounts to an endorsement for those products and services when they’re advertised to other users,” he wrote.

“We think that a better business standard would be to make this sort of new feature opt-in,” write Ducklin. “We accept that short-term sales goals might be easier to achieve with opt-out, but we know that opt-in would be safer for users.”

“There’s still no sign that LinkedIn is willing to go down the opt-in path,” he concluded. “The company still seems happy with opt-out, though I must admit that it has made opting out of social ads fairly straightforward. A couple of clicks will do it.”

LinkedIn is not alone in forcing users to go down the opt out approach.

Facebook recently decided to make its facial-recognition service default to on, much to the anger of industry regulators, meaning that users have to take action to switch it off.