Foursquare Plays Fair and Square

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Foursquare should have offered an opt in, argues one activist.
Foursquare should have offered an opt in, argues one activist.

Social media and mobile communications present direct marketers with myriad new opportunities to target customers. They also present them with touchy privacy issues. Instagram learned that the hard way last month after users rebelled when the Facebook-owned service announced it would begin appropriating the photos they post for ads run on the network. Instagram quickly back-tracked, but the damage was done. AppData reported that  Instagram's  average 16 million daily users dropped by 25% after its announcement, though it still lists Instagram as the No. 1 app based on monthly visitors. (Facebook claimed in news accounts that AppData's numbers were “inaccurate.” )

When marketers at social app Foursquare announced a privacy policy change last weekend, it appeared that they'd learned some lessons from the Instagram incident. Jay Cline, president of Minnesota Privacy Consultants, awarded Foursquare a barely noticeable 2 on his “Privacy Richter Scale” of how badly such announcements shake up consumers. “Foursquare gave the consumer three ways to control the changes, and they appear on a go-forward, not a retroactive basis,” he says, noting that the emails went out to users 30 days before the scheduled change.

Foursquare's amended policy will allow it to share more personal information about users. The reviews of and “check-ins” at businesses posted through the app will carry users' full names once the changes take effect on January 28. Currently, those who aren't “friends” of the user get a first name and last initial only. In addition, business subscribers that now get a look at only the previous three hours of check-ins will have that window of opportunity opened.

“When a company changes its privacy policy, it should first ask whether the change improves privacy for the consumer or decreases it.  Or is it neutral?” Cline says. “This borders on neutral. If I'm a Foursquare customer and I'm in a restaurant paying with a credit card, the establishment is going to have my full name anyway.  The high bar for them would have been to let customers opt in to the change.”

In its email to users, Foursquare suggests a alternative opt-out on the full name listing, saying, “As always, you can alter your ‘full name' “on Foursquare's settings page.  However, it's not clear if this means a user can use an alias or just a variation of his or her real name. The email also says it will give business users “more” access to users' information, but does not specify how much. Several attempts made by Direct Marketing News to contact Foursquare for clarification went unanswered.

One privacy activist found Foursquare lacking in the way it handled the change. “Foursquare users signed up for the service under certain conditions. Companies can't just change the material terms for sharing information by changing a privacy policy or even emailing users,” says Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy at the Center for Democracy & Technology. “The FTC has been pretty clear for years that material changes to existing settings need a user's affirmative permission. Perhaps Foursquare will obtain this permission when the settings go live, but that remains to be seen.”

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