Privacy Groups on Facebook Updates: Meh

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Although Facebook’s latest privacy changes elicited a positive reaction from some long-time critics, not everyone is enamored of the update meant to simplify how users share their information. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), Center for Digital Democracy, the Privacy Rights Coalition, Consumer Watchdog, and numerous other privacy groups held a call Thursday to discuss the changes, reiterating their collective belief that regulation is still necessary in order to keep Facebook and others in check.

EPIC, with the help of 14 other privacy groups, has filed not one, but two complaints about Facebook with the Federal Trade Commission over the last six months. Among their concerns were the facts that Facebook made nearly all information opt-out instead of opt-in by default, and that the social network was regularly engaging in deceptive practices contrary to its own privacy policy.
The changes introduced by Facebook this week were largely meant to address these concerns. Still, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a point of saying that, while the company listened to everyone’s feedback, it made the changes based on what its users said they wanted—not the privacy groups.

During Thursday’s call, those groups generally agreed that Facebook’s attempt to simplify the user controls was a positive step, but many believed Facebook stopped short of making any substantial changes. Jeff Chester from the Center for Digital Democracy noted that he was "struck" at how sloppily the privacy changes were carried out. "Two weeks of caffeine and all nighters—those are hardly the conditions to create a serious privacy policy," Chester said.

Others agreed, arguing that there were still substantial changes to be made and pointing out that nearly all settings to share information remained opt-out instead of opt-in. "Despite the procedural improvements made, the substance does remain largely unchanged," said Chip Pitts of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee. "As a matter of corporate social responsibility, there are still substantial questions about the deceptiveness of Facebook’s approach to these issues. There are still very important reasons for federal regulatory action and oversight on an ongoing basis in this area."

In fact, many of the groups participating in Thursday’s discussion expressed concern that Facebook was being disingenuous with its latest update, and that it only made the changes to keep regulators off its case. "I view what has been done as a preemptive strike against regulation by the FTC," said Paul Stevens from the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

"This whole process shows something of [a] Silicon Valley mindset that Facebook and Google follow: never ask for permission, always ask for forgiveness," added Consumer Watchdog’s John Simpson. "If they were sincere, there would be the minimal amount of sharing and if you wish to share more, then you’d have the option to do that. We have no reason to trust the company now based on its history."

It’s clear that Facebook still has a ways to go before its harshest critics are appeased. EPIC was unable to provide a status update on its FTC complaint—the FTC typically doesn’t comment on investigations until they are over. However, the organization remained hopeful that, given the seriousness of the allegations, the FTC would take "strong, quick, and decisive action" on the complaint.

Consumer Watchdog
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