Facebook Privacy Complaints Spur Call for FTC Investigation

The Electronic Privacy Information Center and nine other groups file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission calling for an investigation into privacy on Facebook. The groups say Facebook's recent privacy and security changes exposed user information.

Ten privacy and consumer groups filed a complaint Dec. 17 with the Federal Trade Commission over Facebook's recent privacy changes and urged the agency to open an investigation.

"This is the most significant case now before the Federal Trade Commission," Marc Rotenberg, executive director of EPIC (Electronic Privacy Information Center), said in a statement. "More than 100 million people in the United States subscribe to the Facebook service. The company should not be allowed to turn down the privacy dial on so many American consumers."

EPIC is one of the organizations that filed the complaint, which calls for the FTC to require Facebook to restore previous privacy settings and seek "appropriate injunctive and compensatory relief."

In particular, the groups take issue with the fact that the default settings-which Facebook refers to as "recommendations"-put privacy settings at their lowest levels. The groups also criticized Facebook's decision to allow application developers to access information deemed publicly available, such as user names and profile photos, via the Facebook API.

Facebook officials have defended the changes and said they worked to inform the public about what was going on.

"We've had productive discussions with dozens of organizations around the world about the recent changes and we're disappointed that EPIC has chosen to share their concerns with the FTC while refusing to talk to us about them," a Facebook spokesperson said.

"We have gone to great lengths to inform users about our platform changes, beginning with our July announcement; founder Mark Zuckerberg's open letter to our 350 million users; our robust press and analyst outreach; the notice-and-comment framework for our new privacy policy; and simple customization tools for users," the spokesperson continued.

Among the other groups joining EPIC in filing the complaint are the Center for Digital Democracy and The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. However, despite the number of groups supporting the complaint, opinions on the issue are divided.

"[Facebook is] trying to encourage users to share more information," said Berin Szoka, a senior fellow at The Progress & Freedom Foundation and director of its Center for Internet Freedom. "Unlike EPIC I don't think that's a bad thing, as long as they do it correctly."

"If EPIC had their way, they would impose on everybody this mandate that 'Thou shall not share unless ... you've checked this box and you've gone through all these careful setting changes,'" Szoka continued. "I just think that's unwarranted because most users aren't that concerned about sharing this information, and [for] those that are, this solution is [a way] to empower them."