Privacy Group Calls on FTC to Probe Facebook Timeline
By John P. Mello Jr.
Facebook’s Timeline feature has been rubbing the Electronic Privacy Information Center the wrong way ever since the “frictionless sharing” tool was announced last September. Now EPIC is complaining to the Federal Trade Commission that Timeline violates a settlement deal Facebook made with the agency in November.
“Having just reached a settlement with the Commission in which the company is required to take several steps to make sure it lives up to its promises in the future, including giving consumers clear and prominent notice and obtaining consumers’ express consent before their information is shared beyond the privacy settings they have established, Facebook is changing the privacy settings of its users in a way that gives the company far greater ability to disclose their personal information than in the past,” EPIC wrote in its letter [PDF] to the five FTC commissioners.
“With timeline, Facebook has once again taken control over the user’s data from the user and has now made information that was essentially archived and inaccessible widely available without the consent of the user,” the privacy rights group added in its December 27 missive.
Timeline, which hasn’t been rolled out across all of Facebook yet, is supposed to give Facebook members an effortless way to present their “story” to their friends. The problem is—as EPIC sees it—that Facebook chooses what appears on the Timeline by default and leaves it to the user to clean up after the social network.
That method of filling up a Timeline not only exposes information that in the past was difficult to access, but it promises to air future information about a user’s media consumption and lifestyle habits, as well as health care information.
For those reasons, EPIC is asking the FTC to determine if Facebook has violated its agreement with the agency.
Inked in November, that agreement settled charges by the FTC that Facebook “on numerous occasions” deceived its members by telling them that they could keep their personal information private while repeatedly sharing that information with others.
The agreement received many accolades, including some from EPIC. Its executive director Marc Rotenberg called the pact “very fair,” but he pressed the FTC to force Facebook to roll back changes it made in December 2009 which prompted the complaint against it in the first place.
As part of the settlement, Facebook consented to a privacy audit every two years for the next 20 years to assure it was complying with the terms of the agreement. The first audit in the program is scheduled for May. If the FTC commissioners can’t come down with a decision on Timeline by that time, maybe the auditors will.