Facebook privacy backlash in FTC’s hands

December 18, 2009

The grousing about Facebook’s recent privacy changes is now an official complaint.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center, along with eight other groups, filed a complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission on Thursday urging the regulator to open an investigation into Facebook’s new privacy settings.

FB11Facebook’s privacy changes “violate user expectations, diminish user privacy and contradict Facebook’s own representations,” reads the 29-page complaint, which accuses the world’s No.1 Internet social networking company of engaging in unfair and deceptive practices.

The complaint comes a week after Facebook unveiled sweeping new privacy changes that it said were designed to simplify privacy settings for its 350 million users, and to give users more control over who sees their personal information.

But many critics took issue with the fact that the new privacy settings made some personal information viewable to “Everybody” by default, instead of just their circle of Facebook friends, unless a user specifically opted to retain their “Old” settings. And information like a Facebook user’s gender and home city were treated as public information under the new privacy policy.

Facebook spokesman Barry Schnitt said in an emailed statement that Facebook had discussed its new privacy settings with the FTC prior to making the changes.

“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,” Schnitt said.

The big question now is how the FTC will treat the complaint and what kind of power it has to act on such Internet privacy issues.

FTC Senior Staff Attorney Peder Magee declined to comment on Facebook specifically, but said that the agency had the authority to file suit against a company which collected information under one privacy policy and then used that information under a second privacy policy.

“It’s got to be a material change. It’s got to mean something to the consumer. It’s got to be retroactive,” he said.

In the instances of companies which offered a free service, the FTC would be unlikely to fine the company but could order it to roll back the privacy policy.

“Of course the companies can reach out to the consumers and if they get consent, it’s fine,” he told Reuters.

(With additional reporting by Diane Bartz)

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