TripAdvisor – How Private is Private Messaging?

GENERAL WARNING

A warning to users of ANY forum – not just TripAdvisor – if you think the content of PMs between members is private, able to be seen only by you and the recipient, BEWARE.   What you exchange in private may also be observed by others.

I recently queried on the TA forum how “private” Private Messages (PMs) between members actually are on TripAdvisor.

Most people would assume they were private – the word “private” being the clue. Furthermore, probably the most popular and commonly used forum software states in its glossary of terms:

Private Messages

Private messages are a way for registered members to communicate privately through your board without the need to fall back to e-mail or instant messaging. They can be sent between users (they can also be forwarded and have copies sent, in phpBB 3.0) that cannot be viewed by anyone other than the intended recipient. The user guide contains more information on using phpBB3′s private messaging system.

However, it appears private does not necessarily mean private on TripAdvisor.

A TripAdvisor staff member replied:

As XXX wrote, we do reserve the right to read PMs, and we have to be able to do so in order to investigate complaints of inappropriate use of the private messaging system. That said, access to private messages is restricted only to TA staff who have a compelling need to be able to access PMs, and we will read a member’s PMs only in the course of investigating complaints from other members or as needed to investigate other misuse of TripAdvisor features.

(my bold)

I find that puzzling – both because it goes against the usual forum etiquette and  TripAdvisor stated policy regarding PMs.

Because today, http://www.twitter.com/tripadvisor sent me a tweet with this link to TA policy on PMs:

do_you_monitor_what_i_write_to_other_members

If you follow the link it says:

Although TripAdvisor does not actively monitor the messages exchanged among members, we do want to make sure that members do not misuse our private messaging system. Therefore, we reserve the right to monitor member to member messages for cases of reported abuse, harassment, spamming and commercial mailings.

If you receive a private message that does not meet our guidelines, please contact us as soon as possible.

Notice the word REPORTED in relation to abuse, harassment, spamming and commercial mailings, and the last sentence asking you to report PMs that do not meet guidelines.

I think that by any reasonable interpretation, most people would think this means TA will NOT look at PMs between members unless a specific PM has been reported by the recipient for abuse, harassment, spamming and commercial mailings.  They may then look at PMs from the sender for evidence of the alleged abuse etc.

It may be that the staff member who replied to my question has made a genuine mistake.  We’re all human.  Or it may be that TripAdvisor stated policy on Private Messages and what actually happens are slightly divergent.  Or maybe I’m just confused!

UPDATE #1 of 26 May 2010: Apparently I’m not confused – it’s just that the Help Page is wrong.  TA does reserve the right to look at any PMs if it thinks it needs to.  I’ve suggested that the Help Page be corrected and “Private” changed to “Direct”.

UPDATE #2 of 26 May 2010: A helpful TA staff member has taken on board the first suggestion and has amended the Help Page on Private Messages; it now clarifies the position as follows:

Do you monitor what I write to other members?

TripAdvisor does not actively monitor the messages exchanged among members.

We do, however, occasionally need to access private messages in order to provide technical support at your request or to investigate violations of our messaging guidelines or Terms of Use (i.e. spamming, commercial mailings and reported abuse), so we reserve the right to read or delete messages and to temporarily or permanently disable messaging privileges if we confirm misuse.

We will never disclose content of your member-to-member messages to other members or to any third party without your express permission.

If you receive a private message that does not meet our guidelines, please contact us as soon as possible.

The policy may not have changed, and may not be what you would understand by the term “Private Message”, but at least the new Help Page makes it clear that PMs are not necessarily private.

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4 responses to “TripAdvisor – How Private is Private Messaging?

  1. In so far as the forum itself goes, I actually agree with the TA policies, such as they are. They don’t tolerate in-fighting between members there. But, they don’t extend the same ‘rules’ to the reviews section. Anonymous ‘reviewers’ are allowed pretty much free rein to say what they like, protected by their own anonymity, and the distance that TA ‘legally’ put between those reviews and TA the site.

    But their policies elsewhere are strange. To read ‘private messages’, to my mind, is like reading your sister’s diary. It’s wrong. On any level.

  2. When I attempted to send you Phil, a ‘private message’ last week, in reply to your own, I had to send a watered down version. I wasn’t allowed to send the message as it ‘violated’ forum rules. All I omitted in the version that I did send was something to the effect that “the owners’ forum was a good thing, as long as TA remained open to suggestions that they were sometimes at fault in the way they deal with owners.”
    When I did delete that final sentence, the ‘private’ message was allowed to go through.

    Interesting, eh? ;)

  3. We are all relying upon TA judgement over what they consider to be right or wrong, be it privacy, right to privacy, forum etiquette, PMs, Management Responses or Reviews. I read nothing here, or anywhere else, that gives me any confidence that TA judgement is based upon a clear or fair policy or that judgements made are carried out with any consistency, accuracy or integrity. This example clearly shows that trained, expert TA staff are unable to abide by their own conflicting rules. What chance 30 million reviewers and tens of thousands of Owners?

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