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