The term of "social" is provided for most people with a sense of well-being or at least with positive connotations. So many institutions use this adjective in various contexts starting with social market economy to social partners. When it comes to "social" networks such as Facebook, Google+, and Twitter, however, the connotations have not been universally positive in past months, even for many formerly ardent supporters. The ends pursued by these networks are often not "social", but rather commercial, and profit-oriented as marketer of user data. Indeed, it is almost shocking to observe the naiveté with which not just younger users have contended that the operators of such networks have altruistic motives. Perhaps such notions would be halfway acceptable if it weren’t for recent developments.

After recent efforts to enforce the requirement that Google+ users provide their real names, Google upped the stakes in March of this year with the introduction of its new privacy policy, which provides for the linkage of user data between various services, including Google Search, Google Mail, Picasa Web Albums, Google Chat,  Android smartphones, and Google+ messaging. Google is now allowed to save all telecommunications data generated by Android users, including information about who phoned or exchanged a text message with whom, as well as when and where. While politicians in Germany have been conducting heated debates as of late concerning the constitutionality of data retention by telecommunications providers, this issue has long been a moot topic at Google, even not talking of the highly praised right of privacy, for "that which Google does, it does in secret" (to quote Thilo Weichert, Schleswig-Holstein’s data protection officer).

At Facebook, meanwhile, users are required to grant their permission for personal data to be transferred to the U.S. for "further processing", whatever that may mean. Facebook users can of course restrict public access to their profiles and posts, yet Facebook itself records all user data. With regard to Twitter, users should know that the British company DataSift has rights to sell the entire Twitter archive since January 2010, and also offers the linkage of Twitter data with Google+ and Facebook information (C. Kurz, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 02.03.2012). Yet escaping online social networks often proves to be difficult for users, because there are no real alternatives when all of one's friends are at a single site and the barriers to market entry for new competitors are high.

However, the issue at hand is not to demonise Facebook, Google, or Twitter, for these companies also provide many valuable services. Users nevertheless need to be aware of what is going on in social networks. Customised advertising based on user behaviour is not bad per se, and for many users, it may even be welcome. But users should know that customised ads are placed by Google in the same way as other online ads: based on how much the advertiser has paid. While it would perhaps be an exaggeration to refer to the customized placement of advertisements as a deprivement of the individual's right to choose freely, there are certainly users who reject Google's gathering of information about their online behaviour and who would would prefer to enter a few keywords more to find the information they are seeking. Facebook users should know that HR departments regularly study the Facebook profiles of job applicants in order to obtain information they are not allowed to ask about during an interview or which an applicant may conceal. The police are also not strangers to social media, and there are numerous instances of individuals being apprehended for crimes based on information obtained through Facebook. While we can certainly applaud the successful prosecution of criminals, what about the collateral damage such arrests may cause sheerly through association?

My recommendation? Google to your heart's content, but consider disabling your cookies.