Pew: Americans turning on to online privacy

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A new report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project finds that Americans are increasingly aware of their online reputations—and are getting more savvy about managing their privacy setting and pruning less-than-flattering posts (and individuals) from their profiles. According to the survey results, nearly two thirds of respondents using social networking sites said deleted friends from their profiles, up from 56 percent in 2009.

The report lands as online privacy is again front-and-center in national debate, with the Obama administration calling for stronger privacy protections for Internet users and the European Union proposing a personal data protection framework that would enshrine a “right to be forgotten.” At the same time, major Internet companies like Google are taking major PR hits on news engineers deliberately bypassed privacy protections in mobile Safari and Internet Explorer to place advertising tracking cookies on users’ systems. At the same time, public policy researchers and consumer rights advocates have long noted that while everyday Internet users voice strong concerns over their online privacy, their personal actions often indicate a blatant disregard for privacy by allowing their location to be tracked; wantonly identifying their friends, purchases, likes, and dislikes; and posting all manner of personal information for the whole world to see.

The Pew study nonetheless finds that Americans are waking up to online privacy—or at least taking steps to monitor how they come across on social networking services. The study found that while two thirds of online adults have a profile on a social networking site, some 58 percent claim their profiles are set to private so they can only be viewed by friends. Another 19 percent have their profile set to “partially private” so friends-of-friends can also see it. Furthermore, some 26 percent of folks who keep their profiles private also take advantage further restrictions within their profiles, using additional privacy settings to control what particular friend and/or groups can see.

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Overall, the report finds women are far more likely to restrict access to their profiles than men: some 67 percent of women have their profiles set so only friends can access them; in comparison, only 48 percent of men do the same.

Surprisingly, the proportion of social media users who restrict access to their profiles does not vary significantly by age: young users are just as likely as older users to lock down access to their profiles. However, one thing that does vary by age and gender is posting something regrettable: some 15 percent of male respondents said they had posted something to a social networking service that had later come back to haunt them, compared to just 8 percent of romen. Similarly, fifteen percent of social networking users aged 18 to 29 said they’d posted something regrettable; only 5 percent of people over 50 admitted to making the same kind of faux pas.

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Fully two thirds of profile owners say they deleted people from their networks or friends lists in 2011; that’s up from 56 percent in 2009. Furthermore, some 44 percent say they have deleted comments or postings other people have made on their profiles, up from just 36 percent in 2009. The study also finds that, since Facebook has rolled out photo tagging to the world, users are more likely to remove their names from photos tagged to them: in 2009, 30 percent of Facebook users removed their names from photos; in 2011, it was 37 percent.

But it’s not like all this profile management is easy. Some 48 percent of social media users reported they had trouble managing their profile settings, although only 2 percent described the process as “very difficult. As one might suspect, difficult managing privacy preferences varied by age: some 57 percent of respondents aged 18 to 29 reported that managing their privacy settings was “not difficult at all.” Interestingly, people with the highest levels of education reported having more difficulty figuring out their privacy settings.

Pew’s survey contacted 2,277 adults by phone back in April and May 2011, and claims a margin of error of about two percent. Data about teenage user came from a separate survey conducted with teens and their parents.

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