In re Facebook II
- Instagram Retreats on Changes to Terms of Service, Cites User Opposition: Instagram announced that it would withdraw proposed changes to its terms of service announced earlier this week. Instagram backed off a plan to use the names, images, and photos of users for advertising purposes, pleading instead to "complete our plans, and then come back to our users and explain how we would like for our advertising business to work." Instagram's parent company, Facebook, is bound by the terms of a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, initiated in 2009 by EPIC and other consumer privacy organizations, that prohibits the company from changing privacy settings without the affirmative consent of users or misrepresenting the privacy or security of users' personal information. A recent letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg from EPIC and the Center for Digital Democracy warned that Facebook's proposed changes would adversely affect Instagram users. For more information, see EPIC: Facebook, EPIC: In re Facebook, and EPIC: FTC. (Dec. 21, 2012)
- Judge Rejects Settlement in Facebook "Sponsored Stories" Case: A federal judge has rejected a proposed settlement in a class-action lawsuit about Facebook's unapproved use of user images for advertising purposes. The judge, who had previously expressed skepticism about the terms of the settlement, wrote that the plaintiffs had not justified the lack of direct monetary payments to Facebook users, nor had they explained how users will receive an economic benefit from being able to opt out of future endorsements. EPIC and several consumer privacy organizations opposed the settlement, saying that there was little benefit to Facebook users and that the cy pres allocation was not aligned with the interests of the class. In 2009 and 2010 EPIC and a coalition of consumer privacy organizations brought a successful complaint to the Federal Trade Commission that resulted in a significant consent order. In a letter to the court following the recent court order, EPIC explained that the FTC settlement had produced far greater benefits for Facebook users. For more information, see EPIC: In re Facebook. (Aug. 21, 2012)
- FTC Finalizes Settlement with Facebook: The Federal Trade Commission has finalized the terms of a settlement with Facebook first announced in November of 2011. The settlement follows from complaints filed by EPIC and other consumer and privacy organizations in 2009 and 2010 over Facebook’s decision to change its users' privacy settings in a way that made users' personal information more widely available to the public and to Facebook's business partners. The settlement bars Facebook from changing privacy settings without the affirmative consent of users or misrepresenting the privacy or security of users' personal information. In comments filed with the FTC, EPIC recommended strengthening the settlement by requiring Facebook to restore the privacy settings users had in 2009; giving users access to all of the data that Facebook keeps about them; preventing Facebook from creating facial recognition profiles without users’ consent; and publicizing the results of the government privacy audits. Although the FTC decided to adopt the settlement without any modifications, in a response to EPIC, the Commission said that facial recognition data is included within the settlement's definition of "covered information," that the audits would be publicly available to the extent permitted by law, and that the terms of the settlement "are broad enough to address misconduct beyond that expressly challenged in the complaint." Commissioner Rosch dissented from the final settlement, citing concerns that the provisions might not adequately cover deceptive statements made by Facebook apps. For more information, see EPIC: In re Facebook, and EPIC: Federal Trade Commission. (Aug. 10, 2012)
- Judge Skeptical of Facebook Settlement: At a preliminary hearing on a proposed settlement involving Facebook "sponsored stories," Judge Seeborg expressed skepticism about the deal, wondering if there was any actual benefit to Facebook users. The deal, which had been endorsed by some groups funded by Facebook, was opposed by EPIC and several consumer privacy organizations. In 2009, EPIC and a coalition of consumer privacy organizations brought a successful complaint to the FTC that resulted in a significant consent order. For more information, see In re Facebook. (Aug. 3, 2012)
- Facebook Timeline Changes User Privacy Settings. Again.: Without user consent, Facebook announced today that it would post archived user information, making old posts available under Facebook's current downgraded privacy settings. Users have just a week to clean up their history before Timeline goes live. The surprising announcement follows a recent decision by the Federal Trade Commission which found that the company had engaged in "unfair and deceptive" trade practices when it changed the privacy settings of its users. EPIC initiated that complaint and is now urging FB users to submit comments to strengthen the proposed settlement. For more information, see EPIC - In Re Facebook and EPIC - Facebook and Privacy. (Dec. 15, 2011)
- Federal Trade Commission Announces Settlement in EPIC Facebook Privacy Complaint: The Federal Trade Commission has announced an agreement with Facebook that follows from complaints filed by EPIC and other consumer and privacy organizations in 2009 and 2010. In 2009, the EPIC first asked the FTC to investigate Facebook's decision to change its users' privacy settings in a way that made users' personal information, such as Friend lists and application usage data, more widely available to the public and to Facebook’s business partners. The violations are also detailed in the FTC’s 8-count complaint against the company. The proposed settlement agreement bars Facebook from making future changes privacy settings without the affirmative consent of users and requires the company to implement a comprehensive privacy protection program and submit to independent privacy audits for 20 years. The settlement does not adopt EPIC's recommendation that Facebook restore users' privacy settings to pre-2009 levels. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reacted to the settlement in a post on Facebook's blog, saying that he was "first to admit that we've made a bunch of mistakes." For more information, see EPIC: In re Facebook, and EPIC: Federal Trade Commission. (Nov. 29, 2011)
- FTC Releases Agenda for Facial Recognition Workshop: The Federal Trade Commission has announced the agenda and panelists for a workshop exploring the privacy and security issues raised by the increased use of facial recognition technology. The workshop will be held December 8, 2011 at the FTC Conference Center, and will feature diverse panelists with consumer protection, privacy, business, international, and academic backgrounds. EPIC Senior Counsel John Verdi will speak on the panel "Facial Detection & Recognition: Exploring the Policy Implications." EPIC has a complaint pending before the FTC over Facebook's use of facial recognition technology to build a secret database of users' biometric data and to enable the company to automatically tag users in photos. For more information, see EPIC: In re Facebook, and EPIC: Federal Trade Commission. (Nov. 22, 2011)
- WSJ: Facebook Close to Settlement with FTC over EPIC Complaint : The Wall Street Journal reports that the Federal Trade Commission is finalizing a settlement with Facebook that follows from a complaint from EPIC and a coalition of US consumer and privacy organizations. In 2009, the organizations urged the Commission to investigate Facebook's decision to change its users' privacy settings which made the personal information of Facebook users more widely available to Facebook's business partners and the public. According to the Wall Street Journal, the settlement would require Facebook to obtain "express affirmative consent" if Facebook makes "material retroactive changes," and to submit to independent privacy audits for 20 years. For more information, see EPIC: In re Facebook, EPIC: Facebook Privacy and EPIC: Federal Trade Commission. (Nov. 10, 2011)
- Sen. Rockefeller Requests FTC Report on Facial Recognition Technology: Senator John D. Rockefeller (D-WV) sent a letter requesting that the Federal Trade Commission assess the use of facial recognition technology and recommend legislation to protect privacy. Facial recognition technology is being used by technology firms and also police agencies, which has raised civil liberties concerns. The letter cited mobile applications such as SceneTap, which "tracks the male/female ratio and age mix of the crowd [in bars]" and digital advertising at the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas that tailors ads to the person standing in front of the display based on recognition of that person’s age and gender. The FTC will hold a workshop on facial recognition technology on December 8, 2011. EPIC's complaint regarding Facebook's facial recognition is still pending before the FTC. For more information, see EPIC: In re Facebook, and EPIC: Facial Recognition. (Oct. 20, 2011)
In the complaint, EPIC asks the FTC to open an investigation into Facebook, to compel Facebook to allow users to choose whether to link and publicly disclose personal information, to compel Facebook to restore its previous requirement that developers retain user information for no more than 24 hours, and to compel Facebook to make its data collection practices clearer and more comprehensible. The following organizations signed onto the complaint:
- The Electronic Privacy Information Center
- The Bill of Rights Defense Committee
- The Center for Digital Democracy
- The Center for Financial Privacy and Human Rights
- Center for Media and Democracy
- Consumer Federation of America
- Consumer Task Force for Automotive Issues
- Consumer Watchdog
- FoolProof Financial Education
- Patient Privacy Rights
- Privacy Activism
- Privacy Journal
- The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
- The U.S. Bill of Rights Foundation
- U.S. PIRG
Facebook is a social networking site founded in 2004 by Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg. The site “connects people with friends and others who work, study and live around them.” As of December 2009, Facebook has nearly 150 million users in the United States.
Facebook and Privacy
Facebook has had a controversial history with respect to privacy. In 2006, Facebook launched a feature called “News Feed” which allowed users to track their friends’ Facebook updates and activity in real time. Within 24 hours, hundreds of thousands of the site’s users protested the feature. One Facebook group, “Students against Facebook News Feed” grew to 284,000 members within just a few days. As a result of the widespread protest, Mark Zuckerberg wrote an open letter to Facebook users, apologizing for doing a “bad job of explaining what the new features were and an even worse job of giving you control of them." Facebook then updated its privacy settings to allow for more user control over the News Feed Feature.
In 2007, Facebook launched Facebook Beacon, which allowed a Facebook user’s purchases to be publicized on their friends’ News Feed after transacting with third-party sites. Users were unaware that such features were being tracked, and the privacy settings originally did not allow users to opt out. As a result of widespread criticism, Facebook Beacon was shut down in 2009.
In February 2009, Facebook changed its Terms of Service. The new TOS allowed Facebook to use anything a user uploads to the site for any purpose, at any time, even after the user ceased to use Facebook. Further, the TOS did not provide for a way that users could completely close their account. Rather, users could “deactivate” their account, but all the information would be retained by Facebook, rather than deleted. EPIC planned to file an FTC complaint, alleging that the new Terms of Service violated the FTC Act Section 5, and constituted “unfair and deceptive trade practices.” In response to this planned complaint, and user criticism, Facebook returned to its previous Terms of Service.
EPIC's Previous Facebook Complaint
EPIC filed a supplemental complaint regarding several Facebook services, including Facebook Connect and iPhone syncing. EPIC alleged that Facebook's representations regarding Facebook Connect and iPhone syncing were unfair and deceptive because users who employ the services are not informed beforehand that they will no longer have control over their information.
To date, the FTC has failed to take any action regarding these complaints.
EPIC’s FTC complaint is signed by a number of other organizations, including the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the Center for Digital Democracy, the Center for Financial Privacy and Human Rights, the Center for Media and Democracy, the Consumer Federation of America, the Consumer Task Force for Automotive Issues, Consumer Watchdog, FoolProof Financial Education, Patient Privacy Rights, Privacy Activism, Privacy Journal, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, the U.S. Bill of Rights Foundation, and U.S. PIRG.
The complaint highlights several aspects of Facebook’s most recent changes that threaten its users’ privacy. The complaint focuses on Facebook's unfair and deceptive trade practice of sharing of user information with the public and with third-party application developers. First, the complaint argues that Facebooks decision to force users to make previously protected information "publicly available" is an unfair practice. Second, the complaint argues that Facebook’s new social plugins and instant personalization are misleading and deceptive. Third, Facebook deceives users by not clearly informing them about cookies which Facebook uses to track users' internet activity. Fourth, Facebook's decision to allow developers to maintain user information indefinitely contradicts its previous policies and assurances to users.
Facebook now requires mandatory disclosure of even more information, including users' music, film, television, and literature preferences, employment information, educational information, current city, hometown, activities, interests, and likes and dislikes. Facebook forced users to convert information that had previously been protected under privacy settings into "links," which are "publicly available" information. Users were not given a choice to opt-out of this process. Users could either convert profile information into "links" or Facebook would remove the information from that user's profile. These changes contradict earlier assurances made by the company that users would be empowered to protect their information because, as Facebook stated, "you may not want everyone in the world to have the information you share on Facebook.”
The changes also contradict users' reasonable expectation about their privacy. Facebook allows users to adjust their privacy settings, but these adjustments have no practical effect on the public availability of information such as pages, links, employment information, and film and music preferences. Even if a user adjusts her settings so this information is limited to "friends only," the information may not be visible on the user's profile, but it is still publicly available elsewhere.
EPIC's complaint also alleges that Facebook's social plugin program is unfair and deceptive. Facebook has also developed a social plugin program that encourages users to interact with websites across the internet. “Social plugins” are buttons or boxes that appear on third party websites that prompt a Facebook user to click on or comment on items of interest. For example, is a user chooses to "Like" a news article by clicking on a "Like" button, this action is displayed on the third party website, disclosed to the user's friends and appears on the user's Facebook profile. This interaction results in user information being shared with those websites and the user's interaction being published to her friends on her "news feed." This sharing of information is not apparent to users, though, because all that users see when they navigate to a social plugin site is a small "like" or "recommend" button. There is nothing about the button which indicates the vast underlying exchange of information that occurs when a user clicks on it.
Facebook has also changed its developer data retention rule in a way that profoundly affects users, without ever gaining users' consent. Previously, Facebook had limited developers data retention by mandating that developers delete user information after 24 hours. That rule was abolished to allow developers to maintain user information indefinitely.
These changes together amount to a massive disclosure of user information that had previously been protected under users' privacy settings. This information has now been disclosed to third parties and can be retained indefinitely.
The FTC's primary enforcement authority with regards to privacy is derived from 15 U.S.C. § 45, commonly known as section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTCA). Section 5 of the FTCA allows the FTC to investigate "unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce, and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce." This law provides a legal basis for the FTC to regulate business activities that threaten consumer privacy.
- EPIC's FTC Complaint in In re Facebook (filed May 5, 2010).
- EPIC's Previous FTC Complaint in In re Facebook (filed December 17, 2009).
- EPIC's Previous Supplemental Complaint in In re Facebook (filed January 14, 2010).
- Federal Trade Commission, LifeLock Will Pay $12 Million to Settle Charges by the FTC and 35 States That Identity Theft Prevention and Data Security Claims Were False (March 9, 2010).
- Federal Trade Commission, ChoicePoint Settles Data Security Breach Charges; to Pay $10 Million in Civil Penalties, $5 Million for Consumer Redress (December 6, 2006).
- United States v. ChoicePoint, No. 06-CV-0198 (N.D. Ga. Feb. 10, 2006).
- Federal Trade Commission, Microsoft Settles FTC Charges alleging False Security and Privacy Provisions (August 8, 2002).
- In re Microsoft Corp. (Fed. Trade Comm'n Dec. 20, 2002).
- Federal Trade Commission: Section 5 Enforcement Actions
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- Facebook Executive Answers Readers Questions, The New York Times Blog (May 11, 2010).
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- Nicholas Carlson, Facebook Users' Names, Email, Location, And Photos Exposed On Yelp, San Francisco Chronicle (May 11, 2010).
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- Caroline McCarthy, Activist Groups Launch New Facebook Offensive, CNET (Apr. 30, 2010)
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- Riva Richmond, Facebook Stirs Privacy Concerns Again, New York Times (Apr. 27, 2010).
- Michael Liedtke, Senators See Privacy Problem in Facebook Expansion, The Sydney Morning Herald (Apr. 27, 2010).
- Gerrick D. Kennedy Senators Urge Facebook to Protect User Privacy, Los Angeles Times, Comments Blog (Apr. 27, 2010).
- Ben Elowitz, Facebook's Like Button: A Force Powerful Enough to Save Media from Google Search Huffington Post (Apr. 27, 2010).
- Irene North, People concerned over more Facebook privacy changes, The Daily Censored (Apr. 26, 2010).
- Chloe Albanesius, Schumer Asks FTC to Investigate Privacy of Facebook, Other Sites, PC Magazine (April 26, 2010).
- Kristin Burnham, Facebook Privacy Changes: 5 Can’t-Miss Facts, CIO (Apr. 23, 2010).
- Gina Trapani, Time to Audit Your Facebook Privacy Settings, Here’s How, Fast Company Magazine (Apr. 23, 2010).
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- Christina Warren, Facebook Open Graph: What it Means for Privacy, Mashable (Apr. 21, 2010).
- Maurice Cacho, Toss out your privacy as Facebook becomes more stalker-ish, MSN Tech & Gadgets (Apr. 21, 2010).