FTC Privacy Complaint Underscores Facebook Hypocrisy


First and foremost, privacy groups point out that Facebook seems to be the man behind the curtain telling its users that they have more control over their privacy while not so subtly taking their privacy away.

The FTC complaint, spearheaded by the Electronic Privacy Information Center and eight other groups, reflected a maelstrom of concerns from the social networking site's broader user base around updates to Facebook's privacy settings implemented in November and December, and demanded that Facebook return to its original privacy settings.

"Facebook chose to change everyone's privacy settings, and it's clear from users, bloggers, security experts and others that it really was unfair and misleading," said Mark Rotenberg, EPIC executive director, to the E-Commerce Times.

One of the biggest beefs in the FTC complaint is regarding the new default "everyone" privacy option that enables search engines such as Google and Bing to incorporate status updates and other content onto their search pages.

Sponsored post

Among other things in the laundry list of privacy concerns is that the new settings -- enabled by the "everyone" default setting -- treat numerous categories of personal data -- which used to be considered private -- as "publicly available information," including users' names, profile photos, friends lists fan pages, gender, geographies, and networks to which they belong.

Facebook responded to the barrage of criticism by eliminating the link to the Friends List on users' profiles, while also including an option for members who wish to block everyone from viewing their contact lists. However, the information is still publicly available to Google and Bing searches, and can also be accessed by third party applications -- just not within Facebook itself.

"By default, Facebook discloses 'publicly available information" to search engines, to Internet users whether or not they user Facebook, and others," according to the EPIC complaint, pointing out that prior to the privacy changes, Facebook only publicly disclosed the user's name and network.

And this is no small matter, the EPIC complaint points out. Facebook currently has more than 350 million users, more than 100 million of which are U.S. based. As of August 2009, Facebook is also the fourth most visited Web site in the world, and the sixth most visited Web site in the U.S., according to the FTC complaint.

Meanwhile, the EPIC makes no bones about the fact that Facebook is speaking out of both sides of its mouth when it comes to users' privacy. The site has been hounding members to update their privacy settings over the past two weeks, but accompanies its prompts with "recommendations" that its members choose to disclose more information publicly, either with "everyone" or with "friends of friends."

In a Facebook blog, CEO Mark Zuckerberg told users that the site was giving them "more control of your information" and also has "added the ability to set privacy on everything you share." That is, except those pieces of information that the site deemed "publicly available." That must have been an oversight.

Meanwhile, the FTC complaint also points out that Barry Schmitt, Facebook's director of corporate communications and public policy, "suggests that users are free to lie about their hometown or take down their profile picture to protect their privacy."

Yikes, lie? While that may be an option, providing false information on a Facebook profile also violates its Terms of Service, which could ultimately get a user kicked off the site.

So, which is it Facebook? Privacy or publicly available? One can seldom have their privacy cake and eat it too.