What You Always Need To Remember About The Internet

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Your information is not (really) yours… and it’s everywhere.

The news last week was littered (once again) with WikiLeaks. In an attempt to figure out exactly what Julian Assange and his team knows (and where they are getting their leaks from), the U.S. Department of Justice has been asking for information from places like Twitter, Facebook and Google (more on that here: Mashable – Social Media and Subpoenas: A Broken System That Puts Journalistic Sources at Risk and here Fast Company – Why Twitter Was the Only Company to Challenge the Secret WikiLeaks Subpoena). While the mass media outcry is focused on journalism and their ability to keep their sources secret, these issues also highlight the challenge that faces many individuals and brands when it comes to the online channels.

What you need to always remember about the Internet…

  • It’s a business. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc. are not social organizations created to help the better good. They are businesses and they are corporations. Their main focus is all the same: they are here to make money. While they may have other lofty goals (connecting all human beings or helping people to share ideas), they are not charitable groups. On top of that, there is a reason why they are all free. There are no free lunches. By giving you the service for free, they need to make money somewhere (and, more often than not, it’s from capitalizing on your information).
  • Terms of service. Before signing up to any service, you have to sign and agree to their terms of services. Simply put, this is a legal document created so that the company can’t be sued… for anything. It’s a document to protect the company (and in doing so, it does not provide that much protection to the consumer – that’s you and the brands you represent). While some of these terms and services agreement have a more fair and balanced approach (for instance, Twitter will notify you if government or police have asked for your data) many companies are simply looking to ensure their own assets. On top of that, because these channels are ever-changing and evolving, so too are the terms or service. This is a "buyer beware" scenario.
  • Your content is (probably) yours. While you retain the rights to the text, images, audio and video that you post online, always consider that the content is now public and shareable forever. We’ve seen this evolution in platforms like Facebook. As Facebook continues to grow in popularity, they are opening up the information of their users to more and more people. Originally, only the people you were connected to (and agreed to connect to) could see everything you posted, but as Facebook attempts to gain more members (which equates to more money and advertising opportunities), they will continue to "open up" people’s profiles. Contrast that with Twitter, where everything you tweet (from day one) is available for all to see regardless of who you are following (and who follows you).
  • Money. Money. Money. While there are many tactics to how online social networks can make money, there are really only two overall strategies. Strategy number one: they sell the value of the network (the size and reach) along with the personalized data (geographic, psychographic, etc…) to advertisers who can then send those users more targeted messages. Strategy number two: they are looking to grow the company to the point where it becomes a valuable acquisition property, and then sell the company (and all of the data that comes with it) to another company. In both instances, you have to be well-aware that you data is never in the hands of one group, and that their intent is always to share this data to make money.
  • It’s out of your hands. There are countless groups of people trying to fight everything I’ve Blogged about above. These people feel like they have rights to the data and information and should have choices in terms of what their data is being used for. In a perfect world, I’d love to agree, but if you go back to point number one above, this is about business. Users and brands have to know and always remember that these services are free and opt-in because they are looking to make money from the information that comes from the usage. While complaining and petitioning the companies can change certain aspects of the business, it will never sway away from making money or growing the data sets.
  • There are no "copies". Thinking about your pictures and videos in terms of someone else having a "copy" is a mistake. This is the same mistake that many traditional organizations have when looking at WikiLeaks. There are no copies. The picture you have on your camera that you then post to Facebookares not copies… it’s another place where an original version of that picture now exists. The same can be said of everything digital – from you text messages and emails to your tweets on Twitter.
  • You can’t have privacy. If you want privacy in any digital channels (and this includes your own email!), don’t be in a online social network. It’s just that simple. Even if you’re comfortable with the current privacy settings in places like Twitter and Facebook, be very aware that they can change at any given moment in time.

This shouldn’t scare you. It simply is what it is.

In my book, Six Pixels of Separation, I have a section called, Resign Your Privacy. The fact remains: there are tremendous business and professional development opportunities by engaging in these digital channels, but you have to be aware that it does come at a price. That price is that your information is now public, shareable and being used by other companies to better understand how you’re using it and who you are connecting with to better segment your data so that it can be used to be monetized.

Welcome to the new business. How are you feeling about it?

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business – Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:


  1. Hi Mitch,
    I don’t think it’s the lack of privacy that so many are complaining about as much as the lack of common sense on behalf of the networks at times.
    Facebook is a prime example. Every time they make a change to the platform, it seems to open up your privacy settings and changes everything back to having the whole world and their dog see what you’re up to. Even if you’ve closed the gate, bolted the barn and stuck Mike Tyson (in his prime version) to protect your status.
    They’re getting better, but they still have issues. If the networks were as “on it” as everyone else seems to be, then there probably wouldn’t be the need for any privacy discussions.
    Plus ca change…

  2. Hi,
    OUr information is disperded and we have no control. Yet the control should be ours.
    As a right, not courtesy of…
    Why huimbly accept the preservation of a traditional business paradigm? Yes, free services come with an “after meal” price tag that may pop up at a very unconvenient moment. But it’s not a weather condition you can do nothing about.
    Paradigms do shift and those that adapt remain victorious. If people could opt to pay for personalized services, than those service providers would have the same obligations and restrictions as banks have when they deal with your personal property. It is true that as long as companies do not base their revenue streams directly on customers, give personal services for free and make money elsewhere, we’re prey, but it doesn’t mean that we have to accept that as a natural phenomenon and quietly surrender.
    It is up to us, users, to create mindshare to the importance of our privacy, the value of our data, and call for cthe development of pull based business models where we, the customers, will own the game. Reversed paradigms do not necessarily spell loss of business – they spell a culture, mindshare and business models that suit and respect both sides.
    User centricity can become more than marketing lip service. It’s up to us to create those changes. It will take time, technologies and a different culture, but you can already see these voices and seeds budding.

  3. One reason why I use Twitter for casual, non-serious chatter and StatusNet for more serious networking.
    Twitter is centralised while StatusNet (Identi.ca a.o.) is federated.
    Of course it is “out there” like basically everything non-GPG’ed, but at least we have control of our own servers, our own DM’s, etc.

  4. I agree with you Danny on the ethical feeling people have about changes like Facebook makes. I just saw today that Facebook is selling your email, home info, and mobile phone number to those folks that make the Apps you use. I just removed the Facebook App from my phone. I changed my Facebook info including to an alias only my friends know, even though some work peeps are now part of my network.
    Mitch brings up many great points and it is going to be a battle going forward. What is posted on Twitter vs Facebook is completely different because of the nature of the networks. The Fast Company article was a good one.
    My take on Privacy is I observe what people do. When most of Facebook users have their profiles 100% private and the number of Likes on the Open Graph so insignificant it says a lot about what we feel as people. But as to what Mitch is saying these networks are going to push the envelop in hopes of making money.
    User beware. Everything is a cost vs benefit analysis.

  5. I was getting used to giving up my privacy, but after reading your post, I feel a bit squeamish again. I want to do business on line so I guess it’s up to me to get over it.

  6. Great article….The value is in the network…and that means the member communities that make up the network should have a share in the monetary value they create….

  7. Your last point reminds me what I was thinking years ago, that I had to preserve my privacy at all costs, and anonymity, at least partial one, was the true goal to achieve over the net.
    Then you stop and think a second of how bull this sounds. And that there’s no real privacy, from the moment you pay something with a credit card on, after all.
    The sooner you realize your privacy matters really little, the better you’ll feel afterwards. The only choice is not to be online at all, but is it really worth it?

  8. As always, Mitch great article and you spelled it out really well.
    I am not sure I understand the definition of personal information. Every bit of information I put on any of these sites mentioned was my choice. I literally typed each piece of information into the box. I inputted this information on an electronic billboard in most cases for personal gain of some sort be it business or pleasure. I chose which information to input and which information not to input and hence not to share. Is the information that personal if I chose to share it? I put it there to make it public.
    Most of this information could be found in many other places long before these companies even existed. The idea of gathering information and data and using it for other purposes existed long before these organizations came onto the scene. Don’t get me wrong. I do not support that idea of arbitrarily providing this data to anyone however I am not going to be naive either. It exists and we all know that.
    There is one thing, however, that I control completely and no on-line organizations can deny me this ‘right.’ That is the ‘right’ of choice. The ability to choose what information I put on-line. In my opinion the Internet provides me the best vehicle, and the most economical one, to share information with the world, for personal or business gain. I may not control where the data goes but I do control what the data is.

  9. I am scared for the douche bags, because they can’t hide any longer… Over time, your comments, contents, tweets, etc. will reveal your “core identity” Are you a “giver” or a “taker”?
    Best to ALL, Brian-

  10. Social organisations are, of course, businesses, but you have not addressed the possibility that their users can also be their customers. This is the model many other cloud services employ for businesses and consumers, from simple webhosting to Apple’s MobileMe.
    in that model, the user pays for the service, their data belongs to them, and the service provider makes money from them directly. It is easy to provide a choice between free, advertising-supported products and paid-for ad-free ones, as we see in the app market. Why not for social media too?

  11. It kind of pisses me off that so many people get so worked up about the privacy issues. I think more people need to be educated about what you said Mitch: these are businesses and they need to make money.
    What get sme even more though are those same people who when asked why they don’t want to share information never have a response.

  12. Hi Mitch – I think in general, many people, especially young people, don’t think about their information ‘not’ being private. Everyone has the freedom to make their own choices on what they put out there for all to see; but unfortunately, I don’t think many have good common sense to leverage these networks in ways that will benefit their future… just sayin (have a few teen age kids – geez, what were they thinking??)

  13. It is true that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc. are not social organization,they are businesses and they are corporations. They are using people’s data for their businesses. There are some security measures but no one garentee for them. They just care about their profits.

  14. Great article!
    If the U.S. dept asks other platforms about Wikileaks, imagine what business HR people do now when they are about to hire a new employee? We all know what they do (as you mentioned in your book). Some are not aware that media is not social and not a “free-lunch buddy”but we make the new media social…hence your content becomes social – not really yours anymore.

  15. I can’t agree more to this Mitch. Since the very beginning I was always aware of that fact. Thats why sometimes I use code names and fake profile information to sites that I don’t trust.

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