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Is LinkedIn’s “social advertising” the new Google Buzz?

by Robin Wilton  |  August 11, 2011  |  5 Comments

Even among people I know in the privacy community, there are those who maintain a LinkedIn account even though they would not touch most of the other online networking services with a barge-pole. Somehow LinkedIn, with its business-oriented approach to building and publishing your professional biography, has been seen as less promiscuous with its members’ data than the broader ‘social’ sites.

Whether or not that trust was well placed, I think LinkedIn may just have forfeited a slab of it.

As blogger Steve Woodruff writes, here, LinkedIn have added a function to include what they call ‘social advertising’ in users’ notifications: that is, if you “recommend people and services, follow companies, or take other actions”, your name/photo may be displayed in advertising to others. The justification they give for this is that it “makes it easy for […] members to learn about products and services that the LinkedIn network is interacting with”.

One of the principal issues, from a privacy perspective, is that this change has been introduced by default and without notifying users either that it is happening, or how they can opt out if they don’t fancy it. Neither is it clear to users who will see them in these advertisements, or whether their account privacy settings have any effect on the size of that audience. It’s not even clear, from the ‘catch-all’ description above, just which of a user’s activities might trigger the advertising function.

If that sounds familiar, it may just be because there has already been a highly visible case of something not wholly dissimilar. Do you remember the furore over Google’s “opted in” launch of the Buzz service? In that instance, the fallout included a class action settlement with a price tag of $8.5m, and a settlement agreement with the FTC under the terms of which Google had to sign up to 20 years of independent privacy audits…

Now, what LinkedIn want to publish about you via this new mechanism may differ from what Google disclosed via Buzz, but there’s a very similar set of questions at issue:

  • To what extent is users’ personal data “fair game” when they sign up to an online networking service?
  • What’s the right way to notify users if you’re changing the way you use such data?
  • Should the default be “opt-in” or “opt-out”?
  • How should you present any applicable privacy controls to the user?

As you probably know, I have my own strong views on these issues of principle – but what are your thoughts? (In the interests of full disclosure: I’m writing a Privacy Policy paper at the moment, so keep an eye out for that in due course ;^))

Do you have a LinkedIn account (and if so, did you really think they were different from other online networking services)?

Will being opted in by default to this new feature make any difference to you?

What will you do as a consequence?

(Incidentally, Steve Woodruff’s blog post also describes how to revert to opted-out status, if that is your inclination)


Robin Wilton
Research Director
26 years IT industry

Robin Wilton is a research director with a particular interest in digital identity and privacy (and their relationship to public policy), access control and single sign-on, and the productive use of public key infrastructures. Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Is LinkedIn’s “social advertising” the new Google Buzz?

  1. […] or not that trust was well placed,” he added. “I think LinkedIn may just have forfeited a slab of […]

  2. I was not aware of this LinkedIn’s “social advertising” initiative. It sounds like what Facebook & Google tried to do in the past. I am sure many LinkedIn members won’t feel comfortable with it. Agree there should be some notification and control mechanisms to LinkedIn users.

  3. Robin Wilton says:

    Thanks for your comment… Yes, it’s interesting that you and I (and, I suspect, many other users) were unaware of this change, despite LinkedIn subsequently saying that they communicated it to users in advance. It goes to show how hard it can be to make this kind of thing clear to users… assuming that that is what the service provider wants to do.

  4. […] Is LinkedIn’s “social advertising” the new Google Buzz? (tags: linkedin robinwilton gartner privacy addressableadvertising) […]

  5. Stilgherrian says:

    Yes, I really did think LinkedIn would be different. That word “professional” they bandy about. I’d have thought it would be obvious that professionals often if not always take considerable care over how they present themselves publicly. So if they were to be seen to endorse a company, product or service, that would be a considered decision on their part.

    A for the automatic opt-in, I considered that pulling a swifty. From my point of view it broke the implied social contract. I was even more disgusted that their response didn’t even say sorry. Totally unacceptable.

    I have not used LinkedIn since, and I am still considering whether to delete my account.

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