In re Facebook

Top News

  • EPIC Calls for Greater FTC Enforcement: In advance of a Senate Commerce hearing on consumer privacy, EPIC called for more action by the Federal Trade Commission to protect American consumers. In a statement for the Committee, EPIC said that "the FTC is simply not doing enough to safeguard the personal data of American consumers." EPIC explained that "the FTC's privacy framework - based largely on 'notice and choice' - is simply not working." EPIC also warned that consumers "face unprecedented threats of identity theft, financial fraud, and security breach." EPIC has fought for consumer privacy rights at the FTC for more than two decades, filing landmark complaints about privacy violations by Uber, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, and even suing the Commission when it has failed to enforce its own orders. (Sep. 28, 2017)
  • EPIC Urges Public Comments on FTC Settlement with Uber: EPIC is urging the public to comment on the proposed FTC settlement with Uber regarding consumer privacy. (Federal Register Notice). The FTC settlement follows EPIC's 2015 complaint, which detailed Uber's secretive tracking of customers and surreptitious collection of user data. The proposed settlement requires regular privacy audits of Uber by third parties but fails to make substantial changes in the companies business practices or require the company to delete the personal data that was wrongfully obtained. The deadline to file a comment with the FTC is September 15, 2017. The FTC is required to consider public comments before finalizing a proposed settlement. EPIC has previously pursued FTC complaints concerning Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Snapchat. EPIC also recently filed an FTC complaint to stop Google from tracking in-store purchases. (Sep. 6, 2017)
  • Following EPIC Complaint, Uber Agrees To Stop Tracking Riders: Uber has ended the practice of tracking customers before and after they are picked up. In 2015, Uber announced the company would track the location of riders from the time they ordered a ride until after they had reached their destination. EPIC promptly filed a complaint with the FTC and stated that "This collection of user's information far exceeds what customers expect from the transportation service." The end to Uber's tracking of riders comes two weeks after Uber entered into a consent agreement with the FTC following a complaint filed EPIC that highlighted Uber's history of misusing customer data. But EPIC said the FTC settlement does not go far enough. "The FTC should have imposed stronger sanctions on Uber, required the company to disgorge the personal data it had unlawfully obtained, and required the company to restore the original privacy settings," said EPIC President Marc Rotenberg. EPIC has previously pursued FTC complaints concerning Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Snapchat. EPIC recently filed an FTC complaint to stop Google from tracking in-store purchases. (Aug. 29, 2017)
  • After EPIC Privacy Complaint, Uber Settles with FTC: After an EPIC complaint about Uber's privacy practices, Uber has entered into a consent agreement with the FTC. The agreement prohibits Uber from misrepresenting how it monitors or secures consumer information. As with most FTC privacy settlements, the agreement also requires Uber to implement a comprehensive privacy program and obtain periodic independent third-party audits. In 2015, EPIC filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission charging that Uber's plan to track users and gather contact details was an unlawful and deceptive trade practice. EPIC cited Uber's history of misusing customer data as one of many reasons the Commission should act. EPIC has previously pursued successful FTC complaints concerning Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Snapchat. EPIC recently filed an FTC complaint to stop Google from tracking in-store purchases. (Aug. 15, 2017)
  • Rep. Blackburn Proposes Online Privacy Bill, Would Preempt Stronger State Protections: Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) has introduced the The Browser Act, H.R. 2520, aimed at protecting online privacy. The Browser Act would apply to Internet ISPs as well as Internet companies, such, as Google and Facebook, and would generally require "opt-in" consent before sensitive information could be collected or disclosed. However, the bill lacks a private right of action or a remedy for violations. The bill gives enforcement authority to the FTC which has mostly failed to protect consumers online privacy. The bill lacks data breach notification, and would overwrite stronger state privacy laws that protect consumers. In comments to the FCC and elsewhere, EPIC has set out a comprehensive framework for online privacy. (May. 19, 2017)
  • EPIC, CDD Charge WhatsApp Policy Change Unlawful, Urge FTC to Act: EPIC and the Center for Digital Democracy have filed a complaint with the FTC concerning WhatsApp’s plan to transfer user data, including personal phone numbers, to Facebook. This reversal contradicts WhatsApp’s previous promises to users that their personal information would not be disclosed and would not be used for marketing purposes. EPIC said that WhatsApp change in business practices is unlawful and that the FTC is obligated to act. EPIC previously filed a complaint with the FTC over Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp in 2014. In response, the FTC warned the two companies they must honor their privacy promises to users. The FTC has said "When companies tell consumers they will safeguard their personal information, the FTC can and does take law enforcement action to make sure that companies live up these promises." (Aug. 29, 2016)
  • With New Policy Changes, Facebook Tracks Users Across the Web: Over the objections of consumer privacy organizations, Facebook has implemented policy changes that allow the company to track users across the web without consent. The Dutch data protection commissioner launched an investigation after the original announcement. This week the a German privacy agency announced a similar investigation. Last year, EPIC and a coalition of consumer privacy groups urged the FTC to halt Facebook's plan to collect web-browsing information from its users. Facebook is already under a 20 year consent decree for changing users' privacy settings. The consent decree resulted from complaints brought by EPIC and others in 2009 and 2010. (Feb. 4, 2015)
  • Facebook Revises Privacy Policy: Facebook has again revised its privacy policy. Despite the new graphics, Facebook continues to collect and disclose enormous amounts of user data without meaningful consent. The use of location data has expanded dramatically. "We collect information from or about the computers, phones, or other devices where you install or access our Services," states Facebook. These include "device locations, including specific geographic locations, such as through GPS, Bluetooth, or Wi-Fi signals." Facebook is currently under a 20 year consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission as a consequence of a complaint brought by EPIC and coalition of consumer privacy organizations when the company changed the privacy settings of users. More recently consumer organizations in the US and Europe have objected to Facebook's decision to track the web activities of users and to profile offline purchase. Privacy groups have also objected to Facebook's manipulation of user news feeds. For more information, see EPIC: Facebook and EPIC: In re Facebook. (Dec. 5, 2014)
  • Facebook Responds to EPIC Complaint About "Emotions Study": Facebook has announced revised guidelines concerning user data the company discloses to researchers. In 2012, Facebook subjected 700,000 users to an "emotional" test by manipulating their News Feeds. Facebook did not get users' permission to conduct this study or notify users that their data would be disclosed to researchers. In response, EPIC filed a formal complaint to the Federal Trade Commission. "The company purposefully messed with people's minds," states the EPIC complaint. EPIC has also asked the FTC to require that Facebook make public the News Feed algorithm. Facebook is also currently under a 20 year consent decree from the FTC that requires Facebook to protect user privacy, as a result of complaints brought by EPIC and a coalition of consumer privacy organizations in 2009 and 2010. The new guidelines have improved Facebook's research process, but they still raise questions about human subject testing by advertising companies. EPIC still believes the NewsFeed algorithm should be made public. For more information, see EPIC: In re: Facebook (Psychological Study) and EPIC: Federal Trade Commission. (Oct. 2, 2014)
  • European Facebook Users Privacy Lawsuit Moves Forward: A group of over 25,000 European Facebook users may proceed with their lawsuit against Facebook. The users, led by privacy activist Max Schrems, sued Facebook in a court in Vienna. The users charge Facebook with violating EU privacy law by improperly handling users' data. Now that the court has approved the class action suit, Facebook must respond to the complaints. In 2011, Schrems brought a similar lawsuit against Facebook in an Irish court. In the same year, Facebook signed a consent order with the Federal Trade Commission, following a complaint filed by EPIC and a group of American consumer privacy organizations. EPIC has also filed an amicus brief in a federal class action lawsuit, opposing Facebook's use of children's images for advertising purposes. In 2013, EPIC gave the International Privacy Champion Award to Max Schrems, calling him "an innovative and effective spokesperson for the right to privacy." For more information, see EPIC: In re Facebook. (Aug. 26, 2014)

EPIC's Complaint in the News

Background

Facebook

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 Platform

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 now requires mandatory disclosure of certain information. The site automatically makes some user information available to the public, including to third-party developers, without offering users a choice to opt-out. The new Facebook privacy policy states that “certain categories of information . . . are considered publicly available to everyone, including Facebook-enhanced applications, and therefore do not have privacy settings.” In other words, users cannot control who can view certain types of information and cannot prevent third-party applications from viewing certain types of information. These changes were made despite previous representations by the company acknowledging their understanding that its users “may not want everyone in the world to have the information you share on Facebook.” The Chief Privacy Officer of Facebook testified in June 2009, “Users have extensive and precise controls available to choose who sees what among their networks and friends, as well as tools that give them the choice to make a limited set of information available to search engines and other outside entities.” According to the new Facebook policies, however, users no longer have the choice to make certain information available - it is mandatory, and users cannot opt out of allowing certain information to be publicly searchable.

EPIC’s complaint argues that policies regarding third-party developers are unclear and confusing. Further, the updated privacy policy provides for more sharing of information, and less user control over information. Third-party applications on Facebook have access to user information at the moment a user accesses an application website. According to Facebook, “to help those applications and sites operate, they receive publicly available information automatically when you visit them, and additional information when you formally authorize or connect your Facebook account with them.” Facebook explains that some information is automatically set to “Everyone,” which means the information is publicly available. According to Facebook’s privacy policy, you can “choose to opt-out of Facebook Platform and Facebook Connect altogether through your privacy settings.” Under Facebook’s new privacy settings, Facebook represents that users have control over what types of information a friend’s application can access.

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.

Legal Documents

News Stories and Blog Items

Frequently Asked Questions

For more information, visit EPIC's FAQ page on Facebook's new privacy settings.

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