Facebook Target of FTC Privacy Complaint

Ten privacy groups have filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission over recent changes to Facebook's privacy policy.

Led by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), the groups criticize Facebook for changes that made previously private information public.

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

In response, Facebook said it was "disappointed" that EPIC took its complaints to the FTC instead of the company itself.

Though controversial, the changes make Facebook a more friendly service to business users, by providing granular control of what information may be viewed by specific groups of online friends.

Last week, the world's largest social network unveiled new privacy settings to its 350-million members. These included default settings which make of a user's status updates available to potentially all Internet users, as well making users' Friend Lists publicly available.

Facebook has since made changes to the new settings, though many users remain concerned. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg found some of his personal pictures had been made public by the change. They were subsequently changed to a private setting.

Users have complained that if Zuckerberg couldn't get his privacy settings setup properly, the settings must be too complex--or the defaults "too open"--for average Facebook users.

The 29-page complaint details a history of privacy issues involving Facebook, generally relating the making private information previously entered on the service private or changing user settings without users' permission.

The groups, which include the American Library Association and the Consumer Federation of America, ask the FTC to order Facebook to change privacy settings back to how they were before the latest changes, which began last rolling out last Wednesday.

A former FTC Commissioner, Democrat Mozelle Thompson, serves as an advisor to Facebook.

My take: Facebook has had way too many privacy dustups than a social network with 350 million members should. In the most recent case, instead of presuming its users wanted privacy, Facebook seemed to assume the opposite, actually removing (but then adding back) control over Friend Lists.

If you have the time, the complaint makes interesting reading, providing a history of complaints against Facebook and detailing examples of the bad outcomes that can result from a lack of user privacy on the service.

To be such an important company, Facebook seems to be handling an important customer issue in what comes off as a very amateurish manner.

Talking to Facebook privacy executives, one gets the impression they are both expert and serious about protecting users, yet the recent privacy changes suggest almost the opposite.

Voluntary privacy compliance seems to not be working for Facebook, yet the EPIC complaint has become a subject of controversy in the privacy community.

It seems clear Facebook needs adult supervision on privacy issues. It has had many chances to get things right and always seems to miss the mark. The FTC may not be the best way to handle Facebook, yet if not the FTC, to whom should Facebook users turn?

David Coursey has been writing about technology products and companies for more than 25 years. He tweets as @techinciter and may be contacted via his Web site.

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