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Consumer groups hammer Facebook privacy violations in federal complaint

FTC urged to overturn recent Facebook privacy changes

By , Network World
May 06, 2010 03:35 PM ET

Network World - Facebook users were shocked to learn this week that private chats could have been viewed by their friends because of a security hole that was only recently closed, and also that new Facebook features can secretly add applications to your profile.

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But those weren't the only privacy complaints Facebook faced this week. On Wednesday, the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a 38-page complaint against the company with the Federal Trade Commission, demanding that Facebook cancel new features introduced in mid-April that compel users to share more information than before.

"Facebook now discloses personal information to third parties that Facebook users previously did not make available," EPIC said in its complaint. "These changes violate user expectations, diminish user privacy, and contradict Facebook's own representations. These business practices are Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices."

In response to the FTC complaint, a Facebook spokesman said, "Our new features are providing beneficial new social experiences to people around the world that are transparent, consistent with user expectations, and in full compliance with legal requirements."

The FTC isn't likely to rule on the complaint any time soon, but in the meantime let's take a look at the key allegations made by the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Fourteen other privacy and consumer protection groups joined EPIC in filing the FTC complaint, and EPIC sent a letter to members of Congress describing the allegations.

Here's a summary of the FTC complaint against Facebook:

Facebook violated its own privacy policy by making user information publicly available with changes introduced the week of April 18, 2010, the complaint alleges. Facebook is now making information such as a user's hometown, education, work, activities, likes and interests public, whereas previously such information could be hidden, the complaint states.

"As a result of these material changes, Facebook requires users to designate personal information as publically linkable 'Links,' ‘Pages,' or ‘Connections' or to no longer make such information available,"the complaint states. Many Facebook users previously restricted access to this profile data, which includes users' friends list, music preferences, affiliated organizations, employment information, educational institutions, film preferences, reading preferences, and other information."

When the changes went live, Facebook presented users with a pop-up screen compelling them to link their profiles to various pages selected by Facebook based upon content entered manually into the user's profile. The user could either link their profiles to all selected pages, choose pages individually, or click the "ask me later" button.

If the "ask me later "option was chosen, users were later presented the same screen with only the "link all" and "choose individually" options. If they click "choose individually", they are taken to a page with a series of pre-checked boxes, forcing them to uncheck all boxes if they don't want their profiles linked to every page.

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