Numerous privacy advocates and two Congressmen have made clear their concerns over the Facebook changes that the company announced on Sept. 22. One coalition in particular on Thursday officially asked the Federal Trade Commission to look into whether Facebook was set up so that users were sharing more information than they realized. A detailed letter asserted that sharing information on Facebook was now automatic and worryingly assumed to be desirable, due to the policy of “frictionless sharing” that eliminates opt-ins in many instances. In addition, the new features Ticker and Timeline put information about users in front of people who hadn’t even asked to see it.
The letter was signed by Electronic Privacy Information Center, American Civil Liberties Union, American Library Association, Bill of Rights Defense Committee, Center for Digital Democracy, Center for Media and Democracy, Consumer Action, Consumer Watchdog, PrivacyActivism and Privacy Times.
“The new ‘Frictionless Sharing’ features are just more examples of Facebook disregarding the privacy of its users by making sweeping changes that expose personal information without giving users the chance to choose what information they want shared with the world,” said Laura Antonini, research attorney at Consumer Watchdog.
From the legislative side, Representatives Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.) also have requested an FTC probe of Facebook, accusing it of “unfair and deceptive acts or practices.” The co-chairs of the Congressional Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus wrote in part: “We believe that tracking user behavior without their consent or knowledge raises serious privacy concerns. When users log out of Facebook, they are under the expectation that Facebook is no longer monitoring their activities. We believe this impression should be the reality.”
Facebook points out, as it always has, that users have complete control over how much or how little information they wish to make public. The company believes that the majority users will appreciate the added personalization and community that they gain by sharing, but that there are options in place for those who would rather not.
The coalition is not convinced by that reassurance. “For users who wish to maintain something approaching their old privacy settings, Facebook has offered solutions that are confusing, impractical, and unfair,” the letter read. “By concealing the company’s tracking of users’ post-log-out activity and materially changing the framework under which users’ share data without providing a clear opportunity for users to maintain existing privacy protections, Facebook is engaging in unfair and deceptive trade practices.”
Facebook has already taken steps to fix the problem of tracking users after they logged out, prompted by the issue being brought to light by researcher Nik Cubrilovic and others. The company said the cookies had inadvertently tracked users and collected data. It issued a patch, and established a Bug Bounty Program to financially reward people like independent researchers and security experts who brought programming problems to the company’s attention.
“Regardless of whether you are logged in or not, we do not use the information we receive when you visit a site with the ‘Like’ button or another social plugin to create a profile of your browsing behavior on third-party sites or to show you ads, although we may use anonymous or aggregate data to improve ads generally,” Facebook promises. “We delete or anonymize the information we receive within 90 days, and we don’t sell it to advertisers or share it without your permission.”
Privacy advocates’ letter (PDF) – http://tinyurl.com/5vubz53
Nik Cubrilovic’s blog post – http://tinyurl.com/6gk6h6x
Photo by flickr user opensource.com, used under Creative Commons license