Activist groups launch new Facebook privacy offensive

MoveOn.org and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are both campaigning against new modifications at Facebook that once again change the policies that govern users' privacy.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
3 min read

Two nonprofit groups with a history of criticizing Facebook's privacy policies put out splashy messages on Friday to voice their opposition to the social network's latest changes: The Electronic Frontier Foundation published a timeline of Facebook's privacy policy modifications over the years, and liberal activist group MoveOn.org launched a Facebook group called "Facebook, respect my privacy!" in response to its new "Instant Personalization" option that shares a significant amount of profile data.

The two groups' tactics are somewhat different. But like a cadre of U.S. senators who have recently raised concerns about Facebook's latest changes, their argument is the same: Facebook shouldn't be allowed to get away with changing how it handles user data this much.

"When (Facebook) started, it was a private space for communication with a group of your choice," the EFF's timeline written by attorney Kurt Opsahl explains. "Soon, it transformed into a platform where much of your information is public by default. Today, it has become a platform where you have no choice but to make certain information public, and this public information may be shared by Facebook with its partner websites and used to target ads."

"They've launched a new program that shares info about you and your friends with external websites--whether you want them to or not," the MoveOn.org group, which had over 14,000 members on Friday afternoon, explained. "They're calling it 'instant personalization.' We're calling it a major violation of your privacy. Again."

The last time MoveOn.org really made a stink about Facebook, it worked. The group tirelessly campaigned against Beacon, the advertising program that Facebook launched in fall 2007 that marked the social network's first active sharing of user data with third-party sites. More bad press ensued, along with lawsuits. Facebook officially discontinued the Beacon program last fall.

Facebook's latest changes were announced earlier this month at the company's F8 developer conference. Among other things, more profile data is made public by default so that it can be shared as part of Facebook's new Open Graph API, as enabled by the "Instant Personalization" feature.

Update 5:55 p.m. PDT: Facebook spokeswoman Malorie Lucich responded with a statement from the company. "The instant personalization pilot program is an evolution of an idea Facebook has focused on since day one--to give people an easy way to share with their friends," the statement read. "We hope that instead of quickly dismissing sites being more personalized, that people take the time to try out new experiences on (beta partner sites) Yelp, Pandora and ultimately Docs.com. As a reminder, only public data, such as profile pictures, are shared with partners, which makes the sites more social and tailored to you and your friends. We hope people are excited about finding more relevant experiences online, such as more prominently seeing what their friends have to say about restaurants and sharing favorite artists and albums."

The statement from Facebook added: "Instant personalization isn't surfacing anything you couldn't already do on these sites. You can find your friends on Pandora and Yelp through contact importers regardless. Many people were already sharing their names with Yelp and their favorite artists with Pandora. Instant personalization just removes a step and makes your friends, their actions and interests more prominent on the sites.