Facebook's privacy problem is getting worse. Not only is the dominant social-networking company facing ongoing resistance to new privacy controls from users and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), but now it faces a Federal Trade Commission complaint filed by the Washington, D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center.
Facebook recently rolled out a new privacy protocol that it promoted as giving users more control over privacy settings. With the controls, users can decide whether to make certain aspects of their Facebook profiles publicly available on the Internet, or only available to friends.
But the controls were limited, and certain elements, such as the friends list, were made public by default. As originally released, users had no way to change that setting. After a swell of criticism, Facebook allowed users to make their friends list private.
Another complaint was that too much information was made public by default. The EFF complained that users who didn't get around to changing the defaults or who didn't understand the implications would be injured by the new policy.
In its complaint, EPIC formally requested that the FTC investigate Facebook, enjoin "its unfair and deceptive business practices," and require Facebook to protect users' privacy. Specifically, EPIC asked the FTC to require Facebook to restore the previous privacy settings, allowing users to control disclosure of personal information and to fully opt out of revealing information to third-party developers. EPIC also demanded that Facebook make its data-collection practices clearer and easier to understand.
EPIC took special aim at the dangers in allowing third-party developers automatic access to much of a user's personal information. Facebook permits third-party applications to access user information at the moment a user visits an application web site. According to Facebook, third-party applications receive publicly available information automatically, and additional information when users authorize it or connect a Facebook account.
EPIC cited Facebook's own policy to highlight how much information applications may have access to: "your political view, your activities, your interests, your musical preferences, television shows in which you are interested, movies in which you are interested, books in which you are interested ... your relationship status, your dating interests, your relationship interests, your network affiliations, your education history,
your work history, your course information, copies of photos in your photo albums, metadata associated with your photo albums ... a list of user IDs mapped to your friends, your social time line, notifications that you have received from other applications, and events associated with your profile."
Waiting for a Compromise
Will EPIC's complaint and user activism cause a further Facebook retreat?
"We've seen this movie before," said Greg Sterling, principal analyst with Sterling Market Research. "They do something aggressive around disclosure of information, and then people come out of the woodwork and there's some response of 'We hear you.' It has to rise to a certain level, such as this complaint, before there's any action."
Facebook will likely "wait and see how intense and sustained the objections are," Sterling said. "Ultimately there will probably be some kind of compromise, but it's hard to see what the compromise would be. There's absolutely no benefit to sharing your personal information with the whole web."