Grading Facebook's Privacy Changes

Among privacy advocates, opinions are divided as to whether or not Facebook's latest policy changes amount to much. According to the social network's critics, the changes announced this week do not lessen the need for FTC regulation.

While some privacy groups gave a thumbs up to Facebook's latest privacy changes, others say the social network's move is more form than substance.

Representatives from a number of groups, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse and Consumer Watchdog, said May 27 during a call with the media that Facebook's approach of forcing users to opt out of sharing information rather than opt in lessens the impact of the latest change.

"Certainly Facebook has taken a step in the right direction in terms of simplifying things," said Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy with the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. "However, we do regard the changes as largely superficial. We're particularly troubled by the default settings and by the largely opt-out approach that has been taken by Facebook, and view much of what has been done as essentially a pre-emptive strike against regulation by the Federal Trade Commission."

Facebook announced three main changes: creating one control for content, reducing the amount of information considered "publicly available," and giving users more control over how applications and Websites access user data. Facebook said the site adopted these changes after consultation with privacy groups such as the Center for Democracy and Technology.

"Facebook's users have spoken and made it clear that they want control of their information. ... While more work still needs to be done, these changes are the building blocks for giving people what they want and deserve," said Leslie Harris, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, in a statement issued Wednesday.

While Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently admitted the company "missed the mark" with previous iterations of its privacy controls, Facebook has maintained it is committed to striking a balance between respecting user privacy while facilitating the sharing of information.

EPIC was among the groups that took their concerns about Facebook's privacy practices to the Federal Trade Commission-both in December and earlier this month-in the form of complaints.

John Verdi, senior counsel at EPIC, told reporters the privacy group wasn't sure of the status of the complaints, but was hopeful "given the seriousness of the privacy breaches that occurred in this case, that the FTC will take strong and quick decisive action."

"If they were sincere about privacy, the default mode for everything would be the minimal amount of sharing, and if you wish to share more you would opt in to doing that," said John M. Simpson, consumer advocate for Consumer Watchdog. "I don't think we have any reason to trust the company now based on their past record. There's a pretty clear need for federal oversight at the FTC."