Last week, professional networking site LinkedIn removed the “export contacts” options from its toolbar that allowed users to instantly download their contacts’ details.

Predictably there was a backlash.

“I own the contacts and relationships with the people I have met in this life. Not a damn social network.” Bart Lorang, CEO and founder of FullContact.

A comment in response to his post read: “How in the world can they think that they can take away our right to own contacts/relationships?!”

Following pressure from users, Michael Korcuska, VP of product management at LinkedIn published an official post acknowledging this right: LinkedIn is a members-first company and we believe that the data you enter into LinkedIn is yours and you should be able to access it.

After reinstating the export contacts feature, it explained that removing it had been part of the company’s effort to counter scraping from third parties, so that the latter were not able to extract users’ private data. Users on HackerNews countered that there were plenty of alternatives, with one pointing out that all LinkedIn had to do was ask a user to re-submit their password before initiating download of their contacts.

LinkedIn is one of many social media companies that has been called out by their users for trying to control their data. The others include Google, which started asking users to comment on YouTube using their Google Plus accounts in November 2013. And of course, Facebook, which updated its Terms of Service in 2009 that allowed it to hold on to a user’s data even after they had deleted their account.

What emerges is a pattern: A company makes changes that alter the way users access or control their data → There is a backlash → Company issues clarification or explains its reasons for the change → Fails to convince users and rolls back the change.

It may seem that this conflict is a result of ambivalence about the extent to which companies can control users’ data.

But to me the problem seems to be that how users view themselves in relation to a social media company (i.e. as consumers) is fundamentally at odds with how the company views them (as a “big data generating commodity”).

What sets our social media data apart from the rest, what makes it so valuable, is the fact that there is a high probability of it being the most accurate, the most detailed and the most personal.

This is why a single user can be understood as the source of extensive amounts of data—that is constantly being created, shared, and consumed.

This is apparent if you consider the following:

  • While users are able to control privacy settings that limit access for other users, they have less control over keeping their data private from the social networking company itself. In fact, 91% of adults in the US agreed that “consumers have lost control over how personal information is collected and used by companies.”
  • Companies regularly fail to explicitly notify users about changes they make to their privacy policy that directly impacts the degree to which it can access and aggregate a user’s data. LinkedIn did not notify users prior to removing its Export connections download tool; it was spotted a day later by a user and they tweeted about it to LinkedIn. Users didn’t notice the Facebook update until a consumer-rights blog The Consumerist picked it up and brought it to the attention of the public.
  • The acquisitions of other online platforms mean that social media companies are able to treat one single user as a deep source of data—they are able to collect data on how a single user uses all their products across multiple platforms. So, a single Gmail login not only lets you access multiple Google services, but also allows Google a lateral view of your online activity that is no longer restricted to just sending e-mails or watching videos. With this kind of access, companies can have knowledge about “your health, political opinions and financial concerns.”

It seems then that what matters more is who controls and manages the data, rather than who is the proprietary owner of that data.

And the trend, as studies show, is that users want more control over their data. For instance, 52% of millenials are now “paying more attention to and actively controlling their privacy settings than they once did.” At the same time, users are dissatisfied with the current state of privacy in social media. A study found that just 20% of Facebook users were satisfied with default privacy settings, and of those who increased their privacy settings, only 40% were satisfied with the change, suggesting perhaps that users now prefer more nuanced tools with which to control their privacy.

Parallel to this, is an expansion of social media companies into ventures that go well beyond their initial scope of operations. Just in: Last week Facebook announced that it has built a drone “with a wingspan of a Boeing 737” that will be able to provide internet connectivity in remote regions for as long as three months.

The implication of these two trends is that a conflict between social media giants and their users is inevitable, and a direct result of the terms of service that both agree to.

It will surely improve things for the users if social media companies are more proactive in being transparent about how they use data and go the extra mile to ensure that users are notified of changes in their services or terms of agreement.

Yet, it seems that the only way that these companies will fully protect our privacy and data is when the incentive to do so outweighs and outprices our value as sources of big data.