The New Era of Social Media Looks as Bad as Privacy is the Last One

The New Social Media Age Seems to Be Just as Dangerous for Privacy as the Old One

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Experts cautioned that when Elon Musk took over Twitter in October 2022, his proposed changes—such as a subscription-based authentication system and less content moderation—would cause users and advertisers to leave. These forecasts have mostly come true a year later. Third-party assessments show that since Musk took over, the platform’s advertising income has decreased by 55%, and the number of daily active users has decreased from 140 million to 121 million.

It’s possible that the last year saw users migrate to other online venues, which prompted other social media platforms to alter how they gather and safeguard user data. Jenna Ruddock, policy council at Free Press, a nonprofit media watchdog organization, and lead author of a new report examining Bluesky, Mastodon, and Meta’s Threads, all of which have jockeyed to fill the void left by Twitter, which is now named X, says,

“Unfortunately, it just feels like no matter what their interest or cultural tone is from the outset of founding their company, it’s just not enough to move an entire field further from a maximalist, voracious approach to our data.”

Businesses such as Google, X, and Meta gather enormous volumes of user data, mostly for the purpose of selling targeted advertising, but also partly to better understand and enhance their platforms. However, gathering private data on individuals’ sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, or other characteristics might put them in danger. For example, earlier this year, a settlement was struck between Meta and the US Department of Justice following the discovery that the company’s algorithm let marketers to block specific racial groups from viewing advertisements for financial services, housing, and employment. The Federal Trade Commission launched an inquiry into the corporation’s failure to secure user data, which led to the company being hit with one of the highest fines in history in 2018—$5 billion. The investigation was sparked by data exchanged with the British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. (Some of these ad targeting settings have subsequently been modified by Meta.)

According to Nora Benavidez, director of digital justice and human rights at Free Press, “there’s a very strong corollary between the data that’s collected about us and then the automated tools that platforms and other services use, which often produce discriminatory results.” “And the only real option when that occurs is to file a lawsuit.”

Privacy rules are still ambiguous and complex, even for users who choose to opt out of the rapacious data collecting, and many users lack the legalese expertise or time to understand them. In any case, Benavidez notes, “the onus is really on the users to sift through policies, trying to make sense of what’s really happening with their data.” At best, users can determine what data won’t be collected.

The research claims that Mastodon provides the highest level of security for users as it doesn’t follow user behavior off the platform—at least not on the platform’s default server—and doesn’t gather geolocation or sensitive personal information. As Mastodon puts it, other servers, or “instances,” are free to establish their own rules on moderation and privacy. Jack Dorsey, a former CEO of Twitter and cofounder, launched Bluesky, a platform that tracks user behavior across various platforms without collecting sensitive data. However, platforms such as Bluesky and Mastodon are not required by law to maintain their privacy rules in this manner. According to Ruddock, “people can sign on with specific privacy expectations that they might feel satisfied by a privacy policy or disclosures.” And over time, that might still alter. And I believe that some of these new platforms will allow us to witness that.

A representative for Mastodon, Renaud Chaput, told WIRED that the company has no plans to modify its privacy guidelines and that user information is only accessible on the server that houses each user’s account. Requests for comments were not immediately answered by Bluesky or Meta. The company’s deputy chief privacy officer, Rob Sherman, said in a thread that WIRED was led to by Emil Vazquez, a spokeswoman for Meta, that “the best resources to understand how Threads uses and collects data are Meta’s privacy policy and the Threads supplementary privacy policy.”

Even while privacy might provide a younger platform a competitive edge, Nazanin Andalibi, an assistant professor of information at the University of Michigan, notes that “people might still use a platform that they believe will not respect their privacy,” despite their reservations. Less than 3 million people use Mastodon, and slightly more than 1 million use Bluesky, which is still in testing. Furthermore, increased privacy might not be sufficient to change users’ habits on larger platforms like X and Meta’s Threads.

Thoughts mostly adheres to the same extensive data collecting rules as its parent business, which also controls Facebook and Instagram, in contrast to Bluesky and Mastodon. After launching in July on the heels of Instagram, the site had a growth bump at first, but then plateaued. However, Threads currently has over 100 million monthly active users, according to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg during the company’s quarterly earnings call last week.

It appears like Threads is gathering a lot more data than is actually required for the service to operate. Additionally, a portion of the data they’re gathering is really sensitive, according to Calli Schroeder, global privacy counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit organization that promotes online free expression and privacy.

“I believe that this is directly linked to the fact that Meta already possesses an absurdly large amount of personal data behind Threads.”

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