MySpace hit by FTC for privacy violations [Update: MySpace statement]

MySpace privacy

Beleaguered social network MySpace agreed today to settle charges brought forth by the Federal Trade Commission, which says that the company failed to properly protect the privacy of its users by sharing users’ personally identifiable information with advertisers.

As the FTC explains in a press briefing on the matter, MySpace assigns a FriendID to every user profile, which often contain a vast array of personal information, from name and age to hobbies, pictures, and (of course) lists of friends. In its privacy policy, MySpace “promised it would not share users personally identifiable information, or use such information in a way that was inconsistent with the purpose for which it was submitted, without first giving notice to users and receiving their permission to do so,” says the FTC. MySpace also said that it would not “individually identify users to third parties and would not share non-anonymized browsing activity.”

MySpace, however, “provided advertisers with the Friend ID of users who were viewing particular pages on the site,” the FTC said which allowed advertisers to obtain the personally identifiable information available via users’ profile pages. Because the company had explicitly said it would not do this, the FTC says that MySpace violated the FTC Act, which bars unfair or deceptive business practices.

As part of the proposed settlement, MySpace must establish a robust privacy protection program, which will be reviewed by third-party auditors every two years for the next 20 years. (As if MySpace will be around in 20 years…) MySpace is also prohibited from misrepresenting the privacy protections it extends to users. If the company fails to comply with the new mandates, it could face significant fines from the Federal government.

Miraculously, MySpace still has around 25 million active users.

In addition to the privacy violations, MySpace claimed to have abided by the US-EU Safe Harbor Framework, which dictates how US companies may transfer personal information from the European Union to the United States. The FTC says that this is untrue.

Regardless of whether or not you use MySpace anymore — which, we’re guessing, you don’t — this should serve as a reminder that, even if a company offers you privacy protections, you are still entrusting them with your personal information. While there may be consequences for companies who violate their own policies, that in no way guarantees that your personal information is safe, or won’t be used, shared, or sold without your consent. The only way to truly protect yourself is to not divulge your data in the first place.

Update: MySpace’s parent company Specific Media has just sent us the following statement on MySpace’s settlement with the FTC:

Consumer privacy has always been a chief concern at Specific Media.  That’s why we’ve been active members of the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI), the International Advertising Sales Houses (IASH), the Internet Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) and the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA). Additionally, we demonstrated our commitment to privacy by becoming one of the earliest adopters of the DAA’s Ad Choices Program, which provides consumers with unprecedented information and control over the delivery of targeted advertisements to their web browsers.

Since acquiring Myspace in June 2011, we’ve set out to create a social entertainment experience around connecting, sharing and discovering content. Of equal importance, we have extended this commitment to privacy protection and industry best practice to Myspace.

Of course, part of creating the ultimate social entertainment destination is allowing users to feel comfortable and secure about the information they share. Myspace has a long history of developing cutting-edge tools for controlling how information is used and shared. Yet, there is always room for improvement. That’s why one of our first actions after acquiring Myspace was to thoroughly examine the company’s business practices and, where applicable, make improvements. A major focus of this review was to ensure that Myspace delivered advertisements to consumers in a manner that safeguarded their privacy. Applying our expertise in online advertising, we successfully improved upon Myspace’s historical practices, bringing the social media platform to the forefront of industry best practice for ad delivery. 

In order to put any questions regarding Myspace’s pre-acquisition advertising practices behind us, Myspace has reached an agreement with the FTC that makes a formal commitment to our community to accurately disclose how their information is used and shared. Myspace has further agreed to implement a comprehensive privacy program that will minimize future risks to the privacy and security of information. As part of this program, Myspace will conduct biennial independent audits of its privacy practices to ensure that we consistently fulfill this commitment to our community. Similar agreements have been entered into by other industry leaders over the past several months.

We’re pleased to share this update with you today, and are proud of our ongoing commitment to be an industry leader in matters of consumer privacy. We will continue to improve Myspace’s services in the coming months, rolling out new products and features that will enhance your ability to connect socially with your friends, while offering you even greater control over the use and disclosure of your information.

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