Privacy Groups Bristle at Facebook’s Proposed Privacy Changes

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Facebook's announcement late yesterday that it will delay the rollout of a revised privacy policy and data use agreement until next week comes on the heels of unified outcry from consumer rights groups. The updates were originally scheduled to go into effect September 5.

When the social network announced the planned changes on August 29, six consumer privacy groups sent a letter on September 4 to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) asking the agency to prevent those changes from happening, arguing that the prospective changes violate Facebook's 2011 settlement with the FTC.

Consumer Watchdog, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), the Center for Digital Diplomacy, Patient Privacy Rights, U.S. PIRG, and Privacy Rights Clearing House all signed the letter.

“We think that the new policies violate the 2011 consent order with the FTC,” says Consumer Watchdog's Privacy Project Director John Simpson. “If such orders—and the FTC—are to be taken seriously, they must be enforced.”

In November 2011, Facebook agreed to settle the FTC's eight-count complaint that accused the social network of making “unfair and deceptive” privacy changes to its policy in December 2009. Facebook was accused of having a deceptive verified apps program, disclosing photos and videos through URLs after an account was deleted or deactivated, and providing apps with more consumer data than necessary. As part of the settlement, Facebook agreed to notify consumers and receive expressed consent before sharing data outside of established privacy settings. The FTC approved this settlement in August 2012.

But now the six consumer groups believe Facebook is going back on its word with its new privacy policy. In the letter to the FTC, the consumer groups note that Facebook's original Schedule of Rights and Responsibilities (SRR), last updated December 11, 2012, says users can edit their privacy settings to determine how their name and profile can be associated with commercial or sponsored content on Facebook. “You give us permission to use your name and profile picture in connection with that content, subject to the limits you place,” the original SSR reads. However, Facebook's new SSR states that users “permit a business or other entity to pay [Facebook] to display your name and/or profile picture with your content or information, without any compensation to you.”

Simpson says the consumer groups are particularly concerned about Facebook's treatment of minors—those under 18 years old. The new SSR assumes that any minor that creates a Facebook account has done so with at least one parent's consent.

“Such ‘deemed consent' eviscerates any meaningful limits over the commercial exploitation of the images and names of young Facebook users,” the letter reads.

Finally, the consumer group objects to Facebook's claim that it can use all received user information for targeted advertising—including information provided during registration or on a user's timeline; things users like, share or interact with on Facebook; keywords from stories; and information inferred from Facebook actvities. In the Data Use Policy last updated December 11, Facebook says that it will not share user information with advertisers unless it has expressed consent to do so and that Facebook only shares data after removing personally identifiable information.

Facebook claims however that the FTC is aware of its practices and that the settlement cited by the six consumer privacy groups was simply a medium through which it could clarify its policies to users. Consequently, the social media giant denies that it's in violation of the settlement.

“As part of this proposed update, we revised our explanation of how things like your name, profile picture and content may be used in connection with ads or commercial content to make it clear that you are granting Facebook permission for this use when you use our services,” says a Facebook spokesperson. “We have not changed our ads practices or policies – we only made things clearer for people who use our service.”

The FTC confirmed that it received the letter; however, the organization had no further comment.

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