Friday, December 18, 2009

Facebook Privacy Complaint Ignites War of Words

A high-profile electronic privacy group filed a federal complaint against Facebook on Thursday now Facebook is lashing back. by JR Raphael

A high-profile electronic privacy group filed a federal complaint against Facebook on Thursday -- and now, Facebook is lashing back.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) called upon the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Facebook's recent changes to its users' privacy options. The changes, rolled out earlier this month, have been criticized by some for opening up previously masked personal details to the public eye.

"These changes violate user expectations, diminish user privacy, and contradict Facebook's own representations," EPIC's complaint (PDF) alleges.

EPIC's Facebook Complaint

The EPIC complaint -- supported by the Center for Digital Democracy, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, and seven other advocacy organizations -- takes issue with Facebook's newly "public" treatment of such data as users' names, genders, cities, and profile photos. By default, EPIC points out, this information is now disclosed to search engines as well as to third-party Facebook applications.

The concern, according to EPIC, revolves around how this information could be used against a user's interests.

"More than 100 million people in the United States subscribe to the Facebook service," Marc Rotenberg, EPIC's executive director, said in a prepared statement. "The company should not be allowed to turn down the privacy dial on so many American consumers."

(Rotenberg was not immediately available to speak via phone for this story.)

Facebook's Response

Facebook, in response, says it's already spoken with the FTC and other regulators about the changes. A representative from the company notes that the revised privacy policy also adds a series of more detailed options for users, including the ability to specify different settings for every photo, link, or status update posted onto the social network.

"We've had productive discussions with dozens of organizations around the world about the recent changes," Andrew Noyes, Facebook's manager of public policy communications, said in a prepared statement. "We're disappointed that EPIC has chosen to share their concerns with the FTC while refusing to talk to us about them."

Privacy Perspectives

Other members of the privacy community are divided when it comes to EPIC's complaint. Berin Szoka, a senior fellow with the Progress and Freedom Foundation, questions whether getting the government involved is the right step to take.

"I think we're already seeing the marketplace pressures that Facebook faces move us toward a better balance between the benefits of sharing and granular control," he says. "We're concerned about the idea that the government would be in the driver's seat about these issues."

Larry Magid, the co-director of, sees both sides of the debate. He does, however, question why it's necessary for Facebook to make certain types of information -- details such as genders, cities, and profile pictures -- publicly accessible without an option.

"This is a private company -- it's not the government, and nobody has an obligation to have a Facebook page," Magid says. "But on the other hand, Facebook does have a responsibility to protect its members' privacy, [and] while it has provided really good tools to give you more control over some aspects, it has also taken away your ability to hide other things."

This isn't the first time EPIC has taken issue with Facebook over its privacy policies. In February, the organization prepared a federal complaint over changes that would have given Facebook eternal ownership of user data, even if a user deleted his or her account.

Within a day of EPIC announcing its intent to pursue the case, Facebook agreed to revert to its old terms of use and allow its users to have input on future alterations.

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