14 May 2010

Facebook: the privacy backlash!

It was only a matter of time before Facebook`s numerous and worrying privacy changes attracted a number of complaints from its users and also from privacy bodies. The EU Privacy watchdog has now added its voice to the growing number of complaints and has stated that the recent Facebook privacy changes are 'unacceptable.' The complaint refers to the privacy changes made by Facebook over the course of the past year. In its statement, the Article 29 Working Party stated that:

"It is unacceptable that the company fundamentally changed the default settings on its social-networking platform to the detriment of a user...Facebook made the change only days after the company and other social networking sites providers participated at a hearing during the Article 29 Working Party’s plenary meeting in November 2009."

In its letter to Facebook, the Article 29 Working Party also added that default settings should protect users rather than expose their data. An interesting article from the New York Times this week showed that currently users have to navigate through 50 different privacy settings with an excess of 170 options to disable the default settings and protect their data.

The Article 29 Working Party has now added its voice to the criticism. It said that in its letter to Facebook it had emphasised that default settings should protect, not expose, users' private information. The Article 29 Working Party also addressed the issue of third party applications having access to users` data and the disclosure of third person data contained in users` profiles to other users.

Additionally, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has made a similar complaint about Facebook to the FTC on the ground that Facebook is engaging in unfair and deceptive trade practices.

As a result of these complaints, Facebook is holding a privacy crisis meeting today although the company is downplaying the significance of the meeting. It remains to see whether the privacy watchdog will have enough clout to compel Facebook to change its privacy policy and whether Facebook acknowledges that it is not feasible for the user to navigate through so many privacy settings before having a decent level of protection for his/her data. In the end it will be a question of the clout of such privacy watchdogs, the extent of their enforcement powers, and whether such powers are enough to prevail over the current company`s business model in which disclosure is the norm as it ensures more revenue for the company via targeted advertising.

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