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Competing for Control and Transparency

Social media companies compete on features, audience size and, increasingly, their ability to make consumers feel safe sharing personal information.

The online privacy debate is frequently driven by blaring headlines, salacious stories or dramatic hypotheticals. After all, it is easier to drive web traffic with a story that focuses on leaked celebrity pictures than have an honest conversation about responsible sharing.

But, two undeniable facts face companies, regulators and consumers trying to find a solution.

First, it’s a challenge to get the public to focus on managing their online lives. People clearly want to share and self-publish information and they want to do it as fast and with as few roadblocks as possible.

The continued use of “privacy” as a key issue in voluntary online interactions is out of date.

The second fact is that the continued use of “privacy” as a key issue in voluntary online interactions is out of date. If you are blogging, tweeting, posting and distributing pictures of your dinner to friends and acquaintances you’ve actively chosen to amplify your natural voice and draw attention to your actions. Privacy as an idea will always be popular, but social media’s explosive adoption demonstrates that privacy concerns will not get in the way of sharing. What consumers desire is more control and transparency.

Companies know this and are actively competing to deliver solutions that reassure the public and allow consumers to control their own information. A Microsoft funded study released for Data Privacy Day found that a third of consumers always consider a company’s privacy reputation when choosing services to use. But what is the right way to get users to take control?

AOL launched an innovative Privacy Highlights feature that tracks all policy changes for its expansive web properties and lists tools available to users. The resource eliminates the need to comb through pages of dry legalese and makes it easy for consumers to see their options, including the ability to opt out of targeted advertising.

Being informed is also essential for feeling in control. A couple of months ago Facebook launched a new feature, Ask our CPO, that encourages the social network’s community to engage directly with head of privacy Erin Egan. This kind of high context monthly conversation could be an important step in reminding people that maintaining control of their accounts is a constant task.