Is Klout Operating Illegally?

Online privacy is a massive issue. If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to rile up a whole bunch of people, it’s to what degree their personal data is being scraped, acquired, harvested, analysed, utilised and sold. Facebook and Google have both come under huge fire in the last twelve months over their use of data, and continue to do so. So you’d think other services would watch and learn, wouldn’t you? Well not in the case of Klout, the much-maligned online influence management tool.

I’ve taken the weekly pannings of Klout by social media bloggers with a pinch of salt, and the complete over-reactions of some people to the recent adjustment to the scoring system were laughable. It’s pretty much acknowledged among my own network of peers that Klout is a largely useless measure, with an impenetrable ranking system that seems to bear little relation to what one does on Twitter or Facebook or Google+. But people are ambivalent towards it; they simply don’t feel strongly enough to opt out. And I’ve been the same…until now.

Gaming, Privacy & Lies

In the last few days I’ve read some pretty shocking posts about Klout, online privacy and the company’s motives. The first to catch my eye was a post on Social Media Today by Hollis Tibbetts, who ran an experiment which proved how easy it is to game the system and gain a score. Amusing and pretty mild stuff, but it sowed the seed that led to me read a couple more serious posts that blew things wide open.

When Klout gave its algorithms a makeover and in doing so pissed off many a would-be social media guru, it also made some changes that left the service exposed to significant criticism. By scraping the Facebook friends of Klout users, assigning those friends a Klout score based on public information, and then encouraging the original user to invite their friends to register, Klout did little more than cause serious concerns over privacy. There were stories of mothers being prompted to invite their teenage (and probably under 13 year old) children to join Klout after this trolling activity, and the service faced a backlash. Klout says it has since reversed Facebook scraping…but this appears to be bullshit. Although she no longer has a score, I’m still prompted to invite my wife to Klout, as the screen grab below shows.

Keith Dawson from discussed these issues in a post last week, in which he asserts that Klout’s problems are “rooted in a serious overreach in the company’s attempt to be viral.” This is spot on, and it’s clear that the company has not considered the privacy implications of what it has done, especially shocking when the whole service is based around data scraping.

Is Klout Against the Law?

But the worst was yet to come. Via Dawson’s article, I discovered a superb post by blogger and author Charles Stross. I encourage you to read this one in full for yourself, but to precise it, Stross claims that Klout breaks eight Principles of the 1998 UK Data Protection Act (it operates under American privacy law). In fact, he states in no uncertain terms that Klout is “flagrantly in violation of UK data protection law” and that its business model is “flat-out illegal in the UK and, I believe, throughout the EU”. He outlines in compelling detail the reasons for this, including issues over consent, transparency and verification. In short, if Klout were a UK company, it would but shut down immediately.

Another area Stross discusses is Klout’s raison d’etre. Is it providing a service out of the goodness of its heart? Of course not, it’s in it for money and has investors to satisfy. And yet we don’t think about that. We don’t think about the fact that although it’s presenting itself as “the standard for influence” and providing useful (*cough*) data for us, it’s really gathering as much personal information from us as it can and flogging it to the highest bidder.

Opt Out Now. Or Not…

It really is shocking stuff. So of course, having read all this, I’ve opted out, haven’t I? Well…no. And the reason is that I have an extremely morbid curiosity about Klout, how it works and about why people use it. My network doesn’t value it, and yet they don’t opt out. Why? I asked the question on Twitter. Stuart Witts said: “presumably the fear that it will suddenly become the default measurement of influence”. Joel Hughes said: “sounds like hassle – got a millions other things I need to do”. And so it perpetuates.

So what is it that holds us to a service that could well be illegal, serves little or no value, and has no respect? Is it a case of lemmings, where until one or a few jump off the cliff, the rest will sit tight? Are we seriously that needy? Or is it simply that we don’t care? And if not, does the information in this blog post change your mind in any way, shape or form? What do you think?

 Like This Post? Subscribe to TheSocialWeb