Etsy's Crafty Attempt at Social Networking Instead Raises Privacy Concerns

What happens when an online crafts fair tries a little DIY social networking? For Etsy.com, the final product is a privacy backlash. Forget the scissors and glue, here come the lawyers and FTC complaints.

Ars Technica was the first to report that during the rollout of Etsy’s new social networking tool, People Search, in March, the site made changes to what private information is publicly displayed by default.

As a result, Etsy users’ real names and shopping histories are now public, easily searchable on Etsy, and being indexed by major search engines like Google:

“Even if users haven’t entered their full names, their profiles are still searchable by username. Even better, people’s Etsy profiles and their purchase histories (via the feedback they leave) are beginning to show up under Google results for their names. Even if the buyer didn’t leave feedback, a seller could leave feedback for the buyer and still expose what that person purchased,” the site reports.

Etsy, an online marketplace for crafts and vintage goods, introduced the Facebook-style People Search, and its signature “Find Your Friends” tool, to help buyers and sellers connect with each other and become friends.

“Did you know that your coworker and sister-in-law are shopping and favoriting just around the corner from your favorite Etsy shop? It’s time to rendezvous!” wrote Etsy on its blog unveiling the new tool on March 1.

The rollout also highlighted privacy safeguards, noting, “We’re carrying over all of the privacy settings from Sellers Search so you can still hide your real name from search in your Profile.

What the popular online crafts site failed to mention was that the privacy settings now applied to both buyers and sellers with People Search, and the default mode on Sellers Search revealed your name, items that you’ve purchased or made Favorite, and any other personal information.

In order to retain their previous privacy settings and hide their information, users now had to go in and make the changes manually, a step not noted in the rollout or on the site itself.

Further adding to the confusion, Etsy did not send an email or post an announcement noting the changes, meaning that people purchasing items off of Etsy remained unaware of their information suddenly becoming public.

Etsy had not formally responded to the user outcry until Monday night, when its founder, Rob Kalin, posted a blog post in response to the media coverage.

“People have often asked for the ability to make some of their purchases private, and this feature is on our product roadmap. In the meantime, we’re making the feedback that sellers leave for buyers private…We strongly believe in the value of public discussion around a purchase. We have plans for making this discussion more meaningful, and will continue to improve the feedback system,” he wrote.

In the meantime, any fallout from the privacy snafu could be costly. The site earned $34 million worth of sales in February, and garnered attention in Forbes in 2008 due to its rapid growth and appeal.

Also at stake, but priceless, is the site’s credibility and trust among its devoted user base.

And those devoted Etsy users who want to keep their information, and buying histories, private can do so by logging into their Etsy account, head to their profile page and removing their real name.

After that, find the “Your Account” link, click on “Settings” and make purchase history private in the “Privacy” section.

All pretty easy, as long as you are aware, and take the extra steps to do it. Buyers, and crafters, beware.

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