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What’s the Brand Impact of Privacy?

Over the past few weeks there’s been a lot of discussion about privacy policies on the Web. As reported in a recent CNETarticle, the discussion has focused on Facebook’s deployment of a “Like” button that publishers can place on their Web site. So what’s the harm in a small icon on a Web site? Privacy experts and advocacy groups aren’t happy.

Even if someone is not a Facebook user or is not logged in, Facebook’s social plug-ins collect the address of the Web page being visited and the Internet address of the visitor as soon as the page is loaded–clicking on the Like button is not required. If enough sites participate, that permits Facebook to assemble a vast amount of data about Internet users’ browsing habits.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had to do a lot of backpedaling to cover his company’s bases on this one. You can see him interviewed on the topic of privacy and the backlash of sharing people’s information by the Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg at D8. As he publicly admitted in Mashable, “we’ve made a bunch of mistakes.” In fact, he had an e-mail exchange with noted blogger Robert Scoble about the issue and came out publicly via an e-mail, which Scoble published with Zuckerberg’s permission, that said “We’re going to be ready to start talking about some of the new things we’ve built this week. I want to make sure we get this stuff right this time.”

The growth of the Web and proliferation of social media sites appears to have opened up a Pandora’s box of privacy issues. Is it fair for companies like Facebook, Google, or MySpace to capture data about your viewing habits and then sell them?

The more I read about this issue the more I thought about how privacy policies can impact your brand. Has Facebook suffered a loss in customers from this snafu? Did Google loose web traffic last summer when it caught flak for launching Google Web History, “which records the sites you visit, searches you make, images and videos you view, and even sites you haven’t been to but may like.” I doubt it.

I don’t believe that this public backlash has hurt either of these companies so far. But if important private data would have been leaked, or Facebook or Google had clearly lied to customers, I’m sure that their brands would have been tarnished.

If you look beyond concerns about privacy policy for a minute – after all policies are easily fixed and everyone moves on – a bigger problem is those having to do with old fashioned computer security. As reported here, social networking sites as well as Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo! are not exactly enterprise grade when it comes to security. People generally use weak passwords that open the door to all kinds of malfeasance. Its one thing to have your surfing habits tracked, but entirely different when your identity and credit cards get into the wrong hands.

So how much does trust enter into the equation when you’re working with companies? If you don’t trust Facebook with data about your viewing habits – or other personal information – will you stop visiting the site, or just scale back? How important is trust when it comes to brand loyalty? More important, can trust be regained after an issue like the one outlined above? What’s your opinion?

Rob Goodman

Author: Rob Goodman

Rob Goodman is a communications professional with more than 27 years of experience in public relations, marketing and content creation.

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