Privacy groups took aim at Facebook in a new complaint to the Federal Trade Commission while other groups worry proposed Internet privacy legislation could have a negative effect on online commerce and users alike. But is there a balance to be struck?
It has been a long week for Facebook.
Fifteen consumer privacy groups just filed a
(PDF) with the Federal Trade Commission claiming the social
networking site has dropped the ball
in protecting user privacy. Meanwhile,
other groups like the Progress and Freedom Foundation and the Competitive
Enterprise Institute cautioned that ongoing legislative efforts to protect
privacy on the Internet may go too far.
The tension regarding user privacy on the Web is thick enough to cut with
a knife, and it is an open question as to how the government should react.
About eight to 10 years ago, similar privacy and data sharing issues came up
in the banking industry, noted Gartner analyst Avivah Litan. It wasn't until an
act of Congress that consumers by default had to opt into having their
providers share information on them, she said.
"Facebook advertises its privacy
as giving users the ability to control the sharing of information
they post on Facebook, but the firm does not warn those users that those
controls can go awry," Litan said. "There are no regulations protecting
consumers from the malfunctioning of those controls, and there needs to be. In
other words, there need to be penalties when companies don't protect their
customers' private information, especially when those customers are told that
they are in control of their own information."
But some say the digital world, where information retention has become
routine, requires an approach to privacy where the goal of
government should be to enforce privacy agreements-not dictate them
"Today, businesses increasingly compete in the development of technologies
our privacy and security
, even as we share information that helps them sell
us the things we want," Wayne Crews, vice president for policy for Competitive
Enterprise Institute, said in a statement. "This seeming tension between the
goals of sharing information and keeping it private is not a contradiction-it's
the natural outgrowth of the fact that privacy is a complex relationship, not a
-thing' for governments to specify for anyone beforehand."
Crews made the comment in response to draft legislation submitted this week
to the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet. The
bill lays out guidelines
(PDF) for disclosing privacy practices, collecting
user information and sharing user data with third parties.
These are the very issues at the center of the FTC complaint against
Facebook, which an FTC spokesperson said is under review. According to the
complaint, Facebook's recent changes "limit a user's ability to browse the
The impetus for the complaint is Facebook's decision to require "users to
designate personal information as publicly linkable 'Links,' Pages' or 'Connections'
or to no longer make such information available."
"These pages were selected by Facebook based on existing content in the
user's profile, including employer information, education information, and
geographic information, as well as music, movie, book, and television
preferences," the complaint reads. "If the user unchecked all of the boxes in
an attempt to opt-out of the compelled disclosure of her profile information,
another pop-up window appeared to inform the user that if no information is
designated as 'publicly available,' then major sections of the user's profile
that were previously available on the user's Facebook page will be deleted and
For its part, Facebook has contended the changes don't endanger user
, and a spokesperson previously told eWEEK the new features will
"make surfing the Web a smoother and more engaging experience for people
who use Facebook while honoring the trust we've been given."
Though a recent
has indicated many users do not take full advantage of Facebook
privacy controls, Ari Schwartz, vice president of the Center for Democracy and
Technology, said other research has indicated people are as concerned about
their online privacy as ever.
"Congress needs to give the FTC the general authority to protect
privacy if it wants it to act in cases like this," he said recently in
response to a question about whether the FTC should regulate social networks.
Social network providers need to be regulated so they know they are
held accountable for mishaps, especially when they leak information that they
advertise to their customers is within the customers' control, opined Litan.
"Once these industry rules are put in place, Facebook will probably be much
more careful in how it advertises its privacy controls to users, and will
likely pay a lot more attention to making sure that they work as advertised,"
she said. "It certainly will never be a perfect system, but it will offer
consumers better protections."