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Facebook Changes (Some) Privacy Settings On Heels Of EU Warning

Facebook is calling an 'all hands' meeting and backpeddling on its privacy policies after the EU and Article 29 Working Party issued strong warnings to the social networking site about exposing users' information without their consent.

Recently, EU officials have rebuked Facebook for enacting privacy changes, including enacting an "instant personalization" feature, which makes personal information on users' profile page accessible to public searches.

Those changes appear to contradict a pledge Facebook made during a November meeting titled "Safe Networking Principles for the EU," prompting an "all hands" meeting of Facebook executives to address the mounting public outcry.

Specifically, a coalition of privacy rights groups, known as the Article 29 Working Party, called Facebook's privacy changes "unacceptable" in a letter expressing strong concerns regarding policy changes that some consider to directly oppose privacy.

"The Article 29 Working Party ... told Facebook in a letter today that it is unacceptable that the company fundamentally changed the default settings on its social-networking platform to the detriment of a user," according to a statement released Wednesday from Brussels. "Facebook made the change only days after the company and other social networking sites providers participated at a hearing during the Article 29 Working party's plenary meeting in November 2009."

Included in that letter, which the Working Party sent to 19 other meeting attendees, was a warning to social networking sites regarding privacy practices that violate EU policies, in particular those that prohibit social networking users' personal information from being exposed or accessible for commercial purposes without their express consent.

"Providers of social networking sites should be aware that it would be a breach of data protection law if they use personal data of other individuals contained in a user profile for commercial purposes if these other individuals have not given their free and unambiguous consent," according to the Working Party statement.

And Facebook might have taken the warning seriously. Thursday afternoon, Facebook executives hope to come to some kind of agreement during an "all hands on deck" meeting regarding the social networking giant's evolving stance on privacy.

"We have an open culture, and it should come as no surprise that we're providing a forum for employees to ask questions on a topic that has received a lot of outside interest," said a Facebook spokesperson about the meeting.

Lately Facebook has been pushing privacy to the limit with a series of policies aimed making users personal information accessible to search engines and third parties, which has ruffled the feathers of privacy rights advocates and legislators alike.

To add fuel to the fire, Elliot Schrage, Facebook vice president for public policy, told The New York Times last week that the heated privacy issues stemmed from misperception and media sensationalism.

Meanwhile, amid heated backlash, Facebook implemented a new set of user controls touting enhanced privacy features.

Altogether, Facebook's new privacy settings include a new feature that allows users to approve devices used to log into the site, along with an alert notifying them whenever an account is accessed from an unapproved device.

In addition, Facebook has built a new tool to block suspicious logins. Users trying access an account from an unapproved device will be prompted with a series of verification questions to provide their online identity.

While well intended, the updated privacy settings will likely do little to quell the firestorm of anger from irate privacy rights advocates and Facebook users.

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