Consumer Reports’ moral panic

I’m very disappointed in Consumer Reports for falling into the moral panic about privacy and social services. Today it issues a survey and a Reefer Madness report that covers no new ground, only stirs it up, over privacy and Facebook. Let me address instead the survey. In its press release, Consumer Reports says — as if we should be shocked at these numbers — that:

* 39.3 million identified a family member in a profile. Do we really live in a world where it should be frightening to talk about our family?

* 20.4 million included their birth date and year in their profile. And so? People can wish you a happy birthday. I think that’s nice. I don’t see the harm.

* 7.7 million “liked” a Facebook page pertaining to a religious affiliation. Oh, ferchrissakes. This is a country where people wear their religious affiliations on their sleeves and T-shirts and bumpers and shout about it in their political arguments. This is a country that is founded on freedom of religion. Why the hell wouldn’t we talk about it?

* 4.6 million discussed their love life on their wall. What CR doesn’t say is how often that discussion is restricted to friends and how often it is public. And if it is public, so what. I’ll tell you I love my wife.

* 2.6 million discussed their recreational use of alcohol on their wall. IT’S LEGAL.

* 2.3 million “liked” a page regarding sexual orientation. And thank God for the progress against bigotry that indicates.

* The survey also said that 4.7 million people liked a Facebook page about a health condition. Well, I say that is a wonderful thing, finally taking illness out of the Dark Ages social stigma of secrecy and shame. It’s about time. This week, Facebook allowed us all to donate our organs — publicly or privately; our choice. In the first day, 100,000 new people signed up to do so. You know that I found benefit writing about my prostate and penis there. Who is Consumer Reports to imply that this publicness is a bad thing.

My fear is that such fear-mongering will lead to more regulation and a less open and free net.

Last night, a good friend of mine complained on Twitter that Google had knocked his 10-year-old son off when he revealed his age. My friend got mad at Google. Oh, no, I said, get mad at the FTC and COPPA (the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) and its unintended consequences. It makes children lie about their ages and puts us in a position to teach them to lie. It had mnade children the worst-served sector of society online. The intentions are good. The consequences may not be.

That is the case with regulation of the net being proposed under the guises of privacy, piracy, pedophilia, decency, security, and civility. That is why we must defend an open net and its ability to foster a more open society. That is why I find the kind of mindless fear-mongering engaged in by Consumer Reports dangerous.

Consumer Reports is not fulfilling its mission to protect us with this campaign. It will hurt us.

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  • Roegen

    “Consumer Reports” (CR) is only in a panic about ‘large corporate interests’ threatening our privacy.

    CR is not at all concerned with ‘government’ privacy threats — that are a 1,000 times worse… and in force today against all of us.

    Of course, CR’s standard solution to any problem is more government regulation, redtape/bureaucracy, criminalizations and punishments. In this case, CR wants a massive Federal “privacy law” to protect us ONLY from supposed ‘non-government sources’ of privacy intrusion & destruction.

    CR and parent ‘Consumers Union’ are key parts of the leftist Ralph Nader family of organizations — Big-Government/Nanny-State enthusiasts. To them, private business (especially ‘corporations’) are always the evil enemy… that must be firmly leashed by the noble & selfless elites in government.

    Consumer Reports mission is not to protect us (they don’t even say that in their formal mission-statement) — but to promote ‘government protection’ in all aspects of our lives (.. they’re smart enough not to state that openly).

  • Al Capella

    Your date of birth has become the new “identifier key” by care providers – since the use of other identifiers – such as social security number – has been disallowed.

    For example; those with knowledge of your date of birth can fraudulently obtain health services under your own insurance coverage.

    That’s one example of harm.

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  • Anon Y. Mous

    First, I think that CR is pointing out that posting seemingly inocuous information about your self online isn’t the smartest thing in the world to – because it isn’t. Al Capella is right.

    As for Roegen , it’s foolishness to think that some giant corporation exploiting you is 1,000 better than the government. Hate regulation? Fine, let’s take down stop signs and legalize murder. Oh wait, that’s not really a smart idea so it IS ok for the government to regulate things as long as it’s not your GREED.

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  • James Davidson

    Thought predicates any and all action. Moving to become public isnt always a personal decision where any authority figure (government) becomes involved … yet CR makes the point that there will always be some form of intrusion given how people are motivated.

  • Jeff:

    Full disclosure: I’m on the board of Consumer Reports and have been since October 2010. But no one there has asked me to respond to your post–I’m writing because we’re friends and because I think you’re overstating things.

    Did you read the full cover story that CR put out? It’s hard to tell because you link to it, but you only cite their press release, and then you declare the whole package to be “mindless fear-mongering.” That’s a broad and, in my humble opinion, unfair statement. I might even be tempted to accuse you of “mindless fear-mongering” about Consumer Reports, just for the fun of it. But that would be wrong.

    If you read the full report, you’d see plenty of balance and nuance, along with some valuable new information about FB users’ shifting usage of the platform, and, most important in my view, critical questions raised not about the value of personal sharing online but about how FB handles all of that data.

    I think you would agree that it is not “mindless fear-mongering” to ask whether changes in one’s publicness (or privacy) on FB should be opt-in or opt-out. (I’m for opt-in, myself.) Nor is it “mindless fear-mongering” to point out that FB still has much to do to improve its user services, for example to deal with the problems that can arise when people’s accounts are hacked. Nor is it “mindless fear-mongering” to raise questions about what information third-party apps are getting from FB, and whether the company is paying enough attention to whether app developers are abiding by FB’s terms of service on how they use that data.

    If CR’s cover story was “Reefer Madness” then it would have been devoid of any description of FB’s merits, and it would have avoided quoting users like Robert Scoble who embrace it.

    Lastly, you accuse CR of feeding into a “moral panic” and proposing regulation of the net in ways that would harm the open internet. Well, you might be pleased to know that CR was on the right side of the fight over SOPA and PIPA and in general has been supportive of the open internet (and I’m working to make sure that only increases). Here’s what they’re asking Facebook to do, in reaction to this new report (from their advocacy arm, Consumers Union

    * Friends’ Facebook apps should not get default access to my personal information. Right now, when a user downloads an app, that app can also access the personal information of the user’s friends too. Many people don’t realize this is happening by default, and the setting to turn this feature off is difficult to find and use.

    * I want an easy way to set one standard default privacy setting that applies to all Facebook platforms, and the current “Control Your Default Privacy” tool doesn’t do that. When users set their “default” setting, they may think they’re doing so for the whole site. But in reality, those settings only apply “to status updates and photos you post to your timeline from a Facebook app that doesn’t have the inline audience selector, like Facebook for Blackberry.”

    * Facebook should give me access to all the data it holds about me. Facebook has said it is planning on giving users more access to some of the information it collects, eventually. But I think I should be able to see everything Facebook keeps that’s related to my profile.

    * Facebook now supports giving the government access to my private information for “cyber threat” purposes with limited oversight and privacy protections. As Congress continues to work on this important matter, I urge you to support the inclusion of strong consumer privacy protections in any cybersecurity bill.

    This is all reasonable and valuable. I hope you agree, Jeff.



    • Micah,
      We disagree. I remain appalled that Consumer Reports should act as if there is something wrong and dangerous in Facebook enabling people to “like” pages in favor of gay rights or that fight diseases. If there is any danger in that, it most certainly is not caused by Facebook but by the kind of mindless bigots and discriminatory employers we would, I am sure, mutually abhor. Yet Consumer Reports acts as if “liking” these movements and sentiments is a danger created by Facebook. I would not want to live in a society where such public sentiments would be presumed to be dangerous, would you? The Consumer Reports event in New York on Thursday was even more disappointing, with its editor declaring, with no shortage of condescension I thought, that the magazine was protecting people who just didn’t know better (I’ll wager that many of the readers of CR know more about social media than CR does, especially considering that there are 900 million people using this service). It also gave voice to an activist who argues that advertising is a vast commercial conspiracy — but then, CR is a not-for-profit that does not take advertising and thus does not depend on the support that most of media does (is that a conflict of interest?). I stand by my characterization of this as moral panic. I am disappointed. And mark my words: CR’s “report” will be used as evidence in efforts to regulate the internet. So will the Wall Street Journal’s. They are peas in a paranoid pod.

  • I understand your point that children should not need to lie. But Children will always do what there are not supposed to. They drink alcohol before their are 21. Here in Germany the children even drink alcohol before they are allowed at 16. Or teenager go into clubs before they are 18. And that is fine. It won´t really harm them. Obviously they have to lie in the supermarket about their age, or borrow an id from a fiend. I have not heard about a country which has found a perfect solution of this. 

  • I figure out your position that young children should not might need to lie.
    But Young children will continuously do what there are not supposed to. They
    consume booze well before their are 21. Right here in Germany the little ones
    even drink alcohol previous to they are permitted at sixteen. Or teenager go
    into clubs in advance of they are eighteen. And that is fine. It won´t
    absolutely damage them. Undoubtedly they have to lie in the grocery store about
    their age, or borrow an id from a fiend. I have not seen about a nation which
    has noticed a best resolution of this.

  • yehaskel

    CR wasn’t stirring up fear when talking about “liking” a disease on Facebook. I think they correctly pointed out that “liking” a disease could be troublesome because employers and insurance companies are watching, too. It’s great to bring health issues out of the Dark Ages and taking power away from the social stigmas attached to them like you said in the post, but it would be stupid to ignore the real risks of doing so.

    Overall, I found the CR report to be fairly balanced and not nearly “refer madness” level. In fact, I thought your meta reaction to the report was more “reefer madness” level than theirs. The report was rather dry and seemed editorially similar to their reports about self-propelled lawnmowers or cordless juicing machines.

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