Five lessons from LinkedIn's opt-out stupidity

Social networks aren't your enemy, they just behave that way

This week's storm over LinkedIn's opt-out foolishness is a valuable reminder that businesses need to maintain a close watch on social networking services (SNS) and be prepared to respond swiftly to any changes.

LinkedIn had opted all of its members into their "social advertising" program, so their names and photos could be used in advertising by a company if they'd followed that company, or if they had "liked" something the company posted, or if they'd taken unspecified "other actions".

From a business point of view this isn't a direct security risk, but it can certainly affect your business' reputation.

As Paul Ducklin from Sophos explained, "Crudely put, and in my own words, LinkedIn gave itself the right to mine your usage habits to determine what products and services you're interested in, and then to use your name and photo in what amounts to an endorsement for those products and services when they're advertised to other users."

So if your employees were following your competitors, say for competitive intelligence, or if they "liked" or otherwise shared something posted by someone at another company because it provided insight, they could suddenly be seen to be endorsing the competition in its own advertising

You probably don't want that.

Anger about LinkedIn's actions only started to spread this week, but their policies had actually been changed back in June. They didn't try very hard to let people know.

In a somewhat defensive blog post today, director of product management Ryan Roslansky referred to the previous posts announcing the policy change and launching social advertising, and a banner advert within the site itself. Clearly LinkedIn imagines everyone reads their blog and believes this is enough.

There's no indication that this procedure will change, even though the company is certainly capable of emailing members when there's something they want to promote.

There's also no indication that LinkedIn will now make opt-in the default, despite their repeated claims to put members first. We can presumably expect further privacy-reducing options to be turned on for us.

Here's what we've learned. There's two lessons for businesses whose employees use SNS sites, and three for anyone running a member-oriented service. The latter aren't security-related, but you can pass them on.

Lesson 1: Watch those social networks like a hawk.

We can't rely on LinkedIn to inform us directly when things change. The other SNS players probably aren't any better.

Businesses might want to assign someone to check every key SNS regularly for changes to terms of service, privacy controls and other features, and consider their implications both for the business and its employees as individuals.

Lesson 2: Keep your employees informed about any concerns.

Even if LinkedIn and others SNS sites do email members directly you can't rely on everyone reading the notice or, even if they do, understanding the business implications.

When a SNS changes the rules of engagement, it'd be worth telling all employees how it affects them and how they should respond in the context of your company's social media policy.

Your company does have a written social media policy, right?

Lesson 3: Privacy is about opting-in to information exposure, always.

This should go without saying, but clearly it needs to be repeated to the likes of LinkedIn. Privacy settings should never be changed by anyone but the user, unless the new setting increases their privacy.

Lesson 4: Notify members directly of all policy changes.

Relying on members reading your blog or otherwise noticing that you're changing the rules of engagement is dodgy.

If you really care about your members, rather than merely claiming to do so as PR spin, then you'll confidently explain what you're doing in clear, simple language.

Lesson 5: If you get it wrong, apologise and fix it.

Nobody's perfect. Occasionally even a well-thought-through plan will trigger an unexpected backlash. When that happens, the key word is "sorry" -- a word LinkedIn forgot to use this week. Address specific concerns with specific actions for change, not more spin.

This last lesson is Crisis PR 101, but it's so often forgotten.

Contact Stilgherrian at, or follow him on Twitter at @stilgherrian.

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Tags LinkedInpolicyopt-inSophos Paul DucklinRyan Roslanskydata privacy regulationssecurity riskSNS Sitessocial networking sites

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