Facebook Policy Changes Draw Scrutiny From Privacy Watchdogs

The mother hen of social media is facing scrutiny—again—for its proposed policy changes that would allow the use of users’ personal information in advertising.

Six watchdog groups filed a letter with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) last Wednesday, stating Facebook’s proposed policy changes on using user information for advertising purposes violate the social network’s 2011 settlement terms with the federal agency.

A Facebook official says the company is only seeking to clarify its use of consumer data, according to The Washington Post. But due to negative reaction thus far, the social networking giant has delayed the policy’s implementation.

Policy peeves

The proposed changes, announced by the company August 29, would allow Facebook to apply user data (including names, pictures, and content) toward advertising, at no compensation to the user. The policy would encompass Facebook’s more than 1.2 billion users worldwide—and, as privacy watchdog groups point out, would affect minors as well.

In particular, the groups point to a rule that could feasibly allow users under 18 years old to indicate that a parent or legal guardian has agreed to “the use of your name, profile picture, content, and information on your behalf.” It’s a “particularly pernicious” move, the six watchdogs say. The groups involved in the effort are the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Watchdog, Patient Privacy Rights, U.S. PIRG, and Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

“[T]he amended language involving teens—far from getting affirmative express consent from a responsible adult—attempts to ‘deem’ that teenagers ‘represent’ that a parent, who has been given no notice, have consented to give up teens’ private information,” the groups wrote in their letter [PDF].

Resurfacing open wounds

Facebook previously took heat on the issue in 2011, settling a privacy suit with the Federal Trade Commission after using names and pictures for the site’s “Sponsored Stories” without user permission.

The terms of the settlement now require the company to notify and receive consent prior to sharing user information—which it says it did, by way of its post on the proposed changes.

The watchdogs allege, however, that Facebook’s policy changes violate the agreement, and that the FTC “must act now to protect the interests of Facebook users.”

Next Steps and Deeper Lessons

Facing a negative reaction from the public and from the privacy groups, Facebook has delayed implementing its proposal for at least another week. The company said in a statement that it’s currently “taking the time to ensure that user comments are reviewed and taken into consideration to determine whether further updates are necessary.”

The issue brings to mind the blurred barriers in an age where public and private information meld. Sure, it’s a user’s decision to share personal details via a public platform—and as Facebook Chief Privacy Officer Erin Egan reminds users in the update, “You are granting Facebook permission for this use when you use our services.”

Too bad that feature doesn’t come with a “dislike” button for users that don’t want it.

(photo by Kris Krug/Flickr)

Emma Beck

By Emma Beck

Emma Beck is a contributor to Associations Now. MORE

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