Entertainment Snafu: PATH Becomes an Intruder

We all use the web for entertainment -- and the most fundamental kind is being entertained by our friends and family members, laughing privately together as we share photos, stories, humor, and the serious bits of our lives. This type of entertainment has had costs we're increasingly uncomfortable with, the costs of oversharing, of being data-scraped, and of feeling privacy deprived.

The privacy revolution is gaining momentum, thanks to the continuous diet of privacy violations and intrusions we've been fed by Facebook, Google, and like company. In the next few weeks I'll write about the perfect storm that we are in the midst of yet don't see -- the rapid demise of Facebook. But this week, let's look at the surprising and continuing creepiness of a purported privacy protector, PATH.

The definition of privacy ought to be fairly easy, especially in this era when so much leakage of our supposedly private information takes place. But it is not. Just because a service offers "private groups" and even if they claim other privacy parameters, be careful. Read their privacy policy for its fine print and double speak. (A good example of a clear privacy policy that truly protects users is at Sgrouples.)

For example, PATH, co-founded by Facebook alumnus Dave Morin, established itself as a purported privacy photo-sharing app a couple of years ago, is built around supporting a single group of up to 150 people. Recently they branched out into direct messaging as well, along with a pretty goofy revenue model focused on artwork and stickers that you attach/share along with your content and with your group. Now with the Facebook connection, a few eyebrows ought to have been raised. Yet really, just a quick perusal of their privacy policy ought to have been enough. They are clear in stating that they use tracking cookies, collect information on my friends from my address book, share my information with third parties, and plenty more. And they don't even let me delete my account; to do that I have to contact them and ask them to do that. Really?

Here's the real gristle. Even with all those gaps in their privacy policy, PATH still came under fire from the FTC, and was fined $800,000 for violating that very privacy policy, and have been placed on self-reporting probation for 20 years. The FTC action also cited PATH for collecting data on kids without parental permission.

So that's the gristle -- and there is more. Even after the FTC has levied their fines, PATH continues to intrude. Apple CEO Tim Cook has also stepped in to grill Dave Morin on what the heck is going on at PATH. It makes you wonder -- are the fines looked at as a cost of doing business? Where is the integrity in that? It used to be that running an ethical business meant at the very least, complying with existing laws and regulations. Apparently PATH is taking the position that their economic interests place them above the law. Here's the final rub -- PATH has some pretty credible investors, including Sir Richard Branson, whom I hold in high regard. I spoke to one of Sir Richard's friends recently, and he said to me that Branson has over 360 portfolio companies he has invested in, and is unlikely to have any idea of PATH's brush with the law, let alone their degraded moral compass.

The good news about PATH is that they, along with services like DuckDuckGo.com (a neat privacy-centric search engine), validate that the privacy revolution is gaining momentum, based on their uptake with consumers. But don't present yourself as privacy-centric when you are not. PATH, like its close kin, Facebook, pretends to offer privacy when in fact the essentials of privacy are sorely lacking. It is as though they purposefully intend to make us so cynical about the ability to be private that we just give up. Not going to happen!

The privacy revolution is real. True privacy is an inherent right of law-abiding citizens everywhere. Great companies with leaders who truly believe in the right to privacy will emerge (like Sgrouples.com). The EU has a truly entertaining phrase that is becoming a key focal point as a right of law-abiding human beings: "The right to be forgotten." PATH, please forget me! Thanks. :)