Get ready for an EPIC battle over Facebook privacy settings

18 Dec 2009

Facebook’s new privacy settings have invited the wrath of the Electronic Privacy Information Centre (EPIC) and eight other organisations who have all filed legal complaints to the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) about the changes the social-networking site has made recently to its privacy settings.

The lightning growth of Facebook from a college dorm project in 2004 to the more than 350 million users of the site certainly could not happen without privacy issues cropping up. But now, thanks to the new privacy settings, users who Google themselves may be surprised to find that their entire page that they hitherto thought they had secured is now available to view, including photos and other personal information.

When it began

The saga kicked off last week when Facebook called on its users to review and update their privacy settings, promising it would roll out new tools to give users better control over their information and the audiences they want to reach. Facebook said users from all over the world have requested the ability to dynamically control who sees each individual piece of content.

The problem with the new controls is that if you changed your privacy settings in the past these will be kept as default. However, if you have never done this you will by default have status updates made completely publicly available. “Facebook has become unsafe almost overnight,” commented one user on the Facebook blog.

The key issue is that users can certainly block particular people, but can’t prevent the masses accessing their information, opening people up to potential stalker problems. Another problem the new settings pose is that third-party applications can now legitimately publish people’s names and profile pictures to whoever they like. Blocking individuals won’t prevent this.

EPIC’s stance

In its complaint to the FTC, EPIC said that Facebook’s changes to users’ privacy settings effectively results in information being disclosed to the public that was previously unavailable. “Facebook’s changes to users’ privacy settings also disclose personal information to third parties that was previously not available. These changes violate user expectations, diminish user privacy and contradict Facebook’s own representations.

“These business practices are unfair and deceptive trade practices, subject to review by the Federal Trade Commission under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act.

“These business practices impact more than 100 million users of the social-networking site who fall within the jurisdiction of the United States Federal Trade Commission.”

EPIC has called on the FTC to investigate Facebook, determine the extent of the harm to privacy and safety and require Facebook to restore its previous safeguards.

By John Kennedy

Photo: The Electronic Privacy Information Centre and eight other organisations have filed legal complaints to the US Federal Trade Commission about the changes Facebook has made to its privacy settings.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years