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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