FTC may enter latest Facebook privacy debacle

Scattered griping about the social network's new privacy policies could turn into a firestorm, as EPIC complains about the decision to push more member content public.

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
4 min read

Privacy advocates opposed to new privacy regulations at Facebook are attempting to get the attention of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, according to a complaint filed Thursday on behalf of the Electronic Privacy Information Center and several allied groups.

"These changes violate user expectations, diminish user privacy, and contradict Facebook's own representations," the complaint says of Facebook's new regulations, which push more content public, and make even more data available to third-party applications and advertisers. EPIC's goal is to force Facebook to restore the old settings and add additional controls for members.

"We've had productive discussions with dozens of organizations around the world about the recent changes, and we're disappointed that EPIC has chosen to share their concerns with the FTC while refusing to talk to us about them," a retaliatory statement from Facebook read. "We're pleased that so many users have already gone through the process of reviewing and updating their privacy settings, and are impressed that so many have chosen to customize their settings, demonstrating the effectiveness of Facebook's user empowerment and transparency efforts. Of course, the new tools offer users the opportunity to decide on privacy with every photo, link, or status update they wish to post, so the process of personalizing privacy on Facebook will continue."

It's one thing when Facebook users start complaining about new features that they deem excessively creepy--just look at the outrage that surrounded the News Feed, now a mainstay of the site, when it launched in 2006.

It's a bigger fish entirely when government regulatory bodies get involved, particularly the FTC, which has major sway over the advertising and marketing industries. It was only when privacy groups flagged concerns about Facebook's Beacon advertising program two years ago that participating advertisers started to pull out amid bad publicity. A class action settlement over the Beacon program was resolved recently.

Since then, Facebook hasn't had a privacy-related debacle on the same scale. Much of the philosophy behind Beacon was baked into its Facebook Connect universal log-in tool, which shares information from third-party sites on Facebook profiles and lets users log into other sites with their Facebook credentials. But with the public-relations pitch geared toward making the entire online experience easier for users (fewer passwords to remember, no more registration headaches) rather than helping advertisers exploit social-networking channels, the debut of Facebook Connect wasn't subject to the same scrutiny.

The controversial new privacy standards at Facebook have been a long time coming, considering the fact that the social network started to publicly set the groundwork nearly six months ago with a series of announcements about modified privacy controls. It's clear that the company was trying to avoid the sort of press bloodbath that came after the debut of Beacon.

That didn't happen. Facebook has already backtracked on one component of its new privacy regulations, one which made users' friends lists publicly available. It's unclear as to how much EPIC's coalition, not to mention the FTC, will prioritize this most recent controversy.

Behind Facebook's traditional willingness to make tweaks and modifications to new features and products, if they spark some kind of concern among government regulatory bodies or marketers, is a fight that the company will not give up easily. What it all comes down to is that Facebook's once-watertight log-in wall--remember the time that representatives mulled banning a blogger who'd posted Facebook-hosted photos publicly?--is getting in the way of the social network's potentially central role in one of the digital world's crazes du jour, searchable real-time information.

Search companies have been announcing big deals to pull Facebook status messages and Twitter tweets into results, and the media business has gone nuts over the potential to harness the "real-time Web."

Facebook, dependent on advertising revenues and still looking to expand its base of more than 350 million users, obviously wants in on this. But if it doesn't have enough status messages, shared links, and other information pulled into search results, it stands a chance at losing ground to the much-smaller Twitter--already the top name, in terms of a massive, searchable clearinghouse for up-to-the-minute information.

Plus, there are marketers and advertisers for Facebook to consider: more search results equals more page views and more ad revenue, and more public information on users' profiles means more ways for the advertising industry to reach them. But if those same marketers and advertisers are the ones pressuring Facebook to change course, in terms of user privacy, it could cause some friction between the social network and the businesses that have finally begun to accept it as a choice destination for their ad dollars.

Now EPIC is alleging to the FTC that Facebook's new regulations can be outright dangerous: "Dozens of American Facebook users, who posted political messages critical of Iran, have reported that Iranian authorities subsequently questioned and detained their relatives," an item in the complaint reads. "Under the revised privacy settings, Facebook makes such users' friends lists publicly available."

That's not good PR for Facebook, which has repeatedly pitched itself as a destination for open dialogue and grassroots organization across zones of political and ethnic conflict.