RealTime IT News

Privacy Groups Call Facebook's Changes Illegal

A coalition of 10 privacy and consumer advocacy groups is calling on federal regulators to take action against Facebook and force the leading social network to restore some of the privacy controls that were recently changed in a massive site-wide overhaul.

The groups, led by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), filed a complaint today with the Federal Trade Commission, alleging that Facebook's changes violated the provisions concerning unfair and deceptive practices in federal consumer protection law.

"More than 100 million people in the United States subscribe to the Facebook service," EPIC Executive Director Marc Rotenberg said in a statement. "The company should not be allowed to turn down the privacy dial on so many American consumers."

EPIC's complaint argues that Facebook's changes have broadened the scope of information treated as publicly available to include profile photos, lists of friends and gender. Publicly available information can be seen by anyone on the Web—not just Facebook users.

The complaint cites news reports detailing several instances when Iranian Americans or their relatives have been threatened, interrogated or detained as a result of information publicly available on Facebook.

It also warns that developers can access personal information about users without their knowledge or consent through third-party applications on the site.

In particular, the complaint notes that Facebook has removed a one-click opt out that enabled users to prevent information from being shared with developers, replacing it with a long list of categories of information. Even when every box is checked, developers still have access to the publicly available information.

EPIC charged that Facebook's policies were an invasion of users' privacy, "causing them to believe falsely that they have full control over the use of their information."

Online privacy has been on the FTC's radar, as the consumer protection agency recently held a forum on the privacy implications of Internet advertising.

At that meeting, Chairman Jon Leibowitz did not outline a specific policy framework, though he said the industry was at a "watershed moment in privacy," and hinted that the commission would take a more active approach to protecting consumers online.

The complaint asks the FTC to conduct an investigation and seek injunctive relief to require Facebook to restore the objectionable settings.

Andrew Noyes, Facebook's manager of public policy communications, said the company had consulted with numerous privacy groups and regulators, including the FTC, prior to launching the new controls.

"We’ve had productive discussions with dozens of organizations around the world about the recent changes and we’re disappointed that EPIC has chosen to share their concerns with the FTC while refusing to talk to us about them," he said in a statement e-mailed to InternetNews.com.

Facebook has experienced a privacy backlash with many of the features and policy changes it has rolled out in its brief history, several of which are outlined in the complaint.

But with the changes enacted earlier this month, Facebook boasted that it was taking an unprecedented step to protect users' privacy. For one thing, the site required all of its users to review and confirm their privacy settings when they logged into the site after Dec. 9.

Nevertheless, the company caught some immediate flak for a control that defaulted to a setting that would share people's status updates and other posts with everyone.