Facebook Faces More Opposition on Proposed User Privacy Changes

By Todd R. Weiss  |  Posted 2012-11-29

Facebook Faces More Opposition on Proposed User Privacy Changes

Facebook, which is no stranger to criticism from its users over its privacy policies, is facing a new round of discord from many of its customers over some freshly proposed changes.

In a Nov. 21 post on the site, Facebook said it wants to halt the current process of asking users to vote on proposed user policy changes and instead implement a new system of receiving feedback and comments on proposed changes. The company said it also wants to allow the sharing of user information with its affiliate services and that it wants to change the tools that allow users to restrict incoming messages from users that they don't know or want to blacklist.

The proposals inspired a quick negative response from the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a nonprofit privacy group, which sent a four-page letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to detail its concerns.

"Because these proposed changes raise privacy risks for users, may be contrary to law, and violate your previous commitments to users about site governance, we urge you to withdraw the proposed changes," stated the letter, which was signed by Marc Rotenberg, EPIC's president, and by Jeffrey Chester, president of the Center for Digital Democracy.

"In 2010, you unveiled a set of simplified privacy controls in response to public criticism," the letter continued. "And in 2009, you agreed to back off proposed changes to the Terms of Service and establish the procedures for user input. Now, we ask that Facebook be similarly responsive to the rights of Facebook users to control their personal information and to participate in the governance of Facebook."

The changes would update two documents that govern Facebook: its Data Use Policy, which explains how it collects and uses data when people use Facebook, and its Statement of Rights and Responsibilities (SRR), which explains the terms governing the use of its services, according to the post from by Elliot Schrage, Facebook's vice president of communications, public policy and marketing.

The idea to end user voting on policy-change proposals is due to the fast growth of Facebook, according to a spokesman who asked to remain anonymous. Presently, any proposed policy change must be opposed by 30 percent of Facebook's users in order to be blocked. But as the social media community has grown to more than 1 billion global users, it's apparent that such a milestone cannot be reached, which essentially means that the existing process is ineffective, the source said.

Facebook Faces More Opposition on Proposed User Privacy Changes

Instead, Facebook proposes that it will replace the voting system with a better system of direct feedback and comment to corporate officers, including the chief privacy officer, and through a series of live Webcasts, where comments and concerns about privacy, safety and security can be discussed.

When the original idea of voting on proposed changes was established several years ago, Facebook was a small private company with some 200 million users, the spokesman said. There have been two policy change votes so far—in April of 2009 and last June—and neither garnered enough votes to stop the changes. Only 342,000 out of a billion users voted in June.

"That's a great example of why we want to make the changes," the spokesman said.

Meanwhile, the proposal to change how users can block communications from other users would replace the current system with improved features that would be more effective, according to Facebook. The proposal is not to remove the controls but to upgrade them, the spokesman said. "You will still be able to block senders and manage which messages you see in your inbox," he said.

The proposal to allow the sharing of user information with Facebook affiliates has also come under loud criticism. In April, Facebook acquired Instagram, which presently doesn't share user information with Facebook. That potentially could change in the future if the user policies are modified.

The one-week comment period on the latest proposed user policy changes ended Nov. 28. Final votes and actions on the proposals are expected to come soon though no date has been set for any decisions.

Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy with The Center for Democracy & Technology, said the Facebook proposal he is most concerned about is the one regarding the sharing of information with affiliates. "They don't have that many affiliates now, but they have Instagram," he told eWEEK. "People signed up for Instagram and didn't think they were signing up for Facebook. They are not merging that information now, but if they did, that might infringe on user's expectations."

Brookman said it’s a possibility worth watching in the future. "It's about users having choices about how their information is used."

Mark Jacobs, the consumer protection counsel with EPIC, said that Facebook could ultimately have to modify some of these latest proposals to meet laws in European nations. Facebook has its European headquarters in Ireland, he said, and has to meet the rules of the Irish Data Protection Commissioner there on behalf of the European Union.

Facebook Faces More Opposition on Proposed User Privacy Changes

One issue that could be affected by the latest proposed changes is the affiliate data-sharing proposal, said Jacobs. "At least when it comes to data sharing with Facebook affiliates, Facebook has to give European users more of an opportunity to consent before they have their information turned over to any affiliate. I don't know how Facebook is going to implement that change but it seems that at least from the perspective of the Irish commissioner that there will need to be some change."

If changes are made there, Jacobs said he's not sure how that could affect similar Facebook user policy changes for the United States and elsewhere. "It could be a European-only thing. I guess we'll have to see how it develops."

More than 14,000 Facebook users posted comments on the proposals before the one-week review period was completed.

Among them, E. Drason Anderson wrote that: "I vote for me—not Facebook—I vote for privacy to be intact and modified by me and only me."

G'ma Vonnie Howard wrote, "I do NOT want anyone else but ONLY those I 'friend' to even see my site or my family/friends' postings! Simple as that! There are 'kooks' out there just 'crunching at the bit' to scam or do harm to others for fun."

Deborah Cabodol wrote, "This is a bad idea .... we choose our privacy settings for a reason .... with all the cyber hacking, I want a safe and secure place to communicate with people I choose ..... not your choice. I will be looking at other options. How much do the companies pay to access our personal information?"

Another user, Josh White, posted that he would delete his "account if these changes are put into place."

K.J. Pierson wrote that "too often this will be used as a tool if possible by employers to eliminate potential employees if the information cannot be kept private. Therefore I vote no. Our data should be available to the public we choose, without yielding total control to the whims of a company. However, the choice is yours, but a dictatorship often brings changes, and there are alternatives in this age.

Another user, Kelly Stankewitz, wrote: "As a longtime user of Facebook, I strongly oppose any changes that limit my privacy or increase the availability of my information to third parties, including advertising and data mining companies."

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