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 offers a service called Facebook Platform, referred to as “Facebook-enhanced” applications. Facebook Platform “enables anyone to build social applications on Facebook and the web” in order to “make the web more open and social.” The Facebook Platform allows Facebook to transfer user personal data to other entities without their knowledge or meaningful consent.
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.
Privacy Settings Update
In response to a complaint prompted by the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) and submitted to Canadian Privacy Commissioner Jane Stoddart, Facebook announced plans to change its privacy policies and settings to provide for more user control over information and stronger privacy settings for its users. The changes were introduced in November 2009, and each Facebook user was prompted to review and update his privacy settings. Facebook also made changes to its privacy settings, which included making certain information, such as name, gender, friends lists, and current city, publicly available, with no option to limit searchability. Facebook submitted a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission, alleging that Facebook engages in unfair and deceptive trade practices. The complaint “urges the Commission to investigate Facebook, determine the extent of the harm to consumer privacy and safety, require Facebook to restore privacy settings that were previously available as detailed below, require Facebook to give users meaningful control over personal information, and seek appropriate injunctive and compensatory relief.” For more information, visit EPIC’s FAQ page on Facebook’s new privacy settings.
EPic’s FTC Complaint
EPIC’s FTC complaint is signed by a number of other organizations, including the American Library Association, the Center for Digital Democracy, the Consumer Federation of America, FoolProof Financial Education, Patient Privacy Rights, Privacy Activism, the Privacy Rights Now Coaltion, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, and the U.S. Bill of Rights Foundation. The complaint highlights several aspects of Facebook’s recent changes that threaten its users’ privacy. The complaint focuses on the unfair and deceptive trade practices of Facebook with respect to sharing of user information with third-party application developers. First, the complaint argues that Facebook’s mandatory disclosure of information is an unfair practice. Second, the complaint argues that Facebook’s policies regarding third-party developers are misleading and deceptive.
Facebook does not allow for an easy way to opt out of Facebook Platform, or opt out of having information shared when a friend uses an application. Even when a user unchecks all boxes, which should prohibit applications from accessing any user data, Facebook notes that “applications will always be able to access your publicly available information (Name, Profile Picture, Gender, Current City, Networks, Friend List, and Pages) and information that is visible to Everyone.” Therefore, the “Everyone” setting overrides the settings a user chooses for third-party applications and websites.
Under Facebook’s previous privacy settings, Facebook allowed for more control over personal information. Facebook users were able to choose not to share “any information about me” to third-party application developers. This opt-out button is no longer available under Facebook’s new privacy settings.
FTC Authority to Act
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.