Facebook Privacy Changes Draw a Little Concern, a Lot of Apathy

Facebook is proposing another round of changes to its privacy policy.

The updates are meant to better explain certain features, said Facebook Deputy General Counsel Michael Richter in a blog post — such as why invitations that non-users receive to join Facebook sometimes include the names of persons other than the one who sent the invitation. (It’s because those people have imported their own contact lists to Facebook, and their lists include the invited person’s email address, he said).

Raising More Hackles

Some of the proposed changes are raising hackles in the privacy community. For example, Facebook wants to adopt new user information-sharing procedures with third parties and location-based services.

“It appears that Facebook is planning to gather locational data on users and to make user data more easily accessible to Facebook business partners,” Electronic Privacy Information Center Executive Director Marc Rotenberg told TechNewsWorld.

Essentially, it seems that Facebook is proposing to change the current rules — which require that it ask users for permission before sharing their information — to a system that bypasses those permission requests for third parties that have a business relationship with Facebook.

The change in the wording regarding location-based services reflects Facebook’s changing product and service development, according to Richter.

The last time Facebook made changes to its privacy policy, for example, it included language describing a location feature it might build in the future, he wrote. Since then, the concept has changed, thus necessitating a change to the privacy language as well.

As for the issue of data-sharing with third parties, “in the proposed privacy policy, we’ve also explained the possibility of working with some partner websites that we pre-approve to offer a more personalized experience at the moment you visit the site,” wrote Richer. “In such instances, we would only introduce this feature with a small, select group of partners and we would also offer new controls.”

Facebook’s continued privacy policy updates and the lack of regulatory scrutiny have sounded alarm bells among privacy advocates, however.

“The bigger problem is that the FTC has failed to investigate Facebook’s business practices,” Rotenberg said. “It has learned that it can disregard the commitments it has made to users in its privacy policy because the government won’t react.”

In the Dark and Don’t Care

Many Facebook users do not really care what Facebook does with their data, Peter Vogel, an attorney with Gardere Wynne Sewell, told TechNewsWorld.

User protests led to some changes, especially early in Facebook’s early days, “but for the most part, they don’t care,” Vogel maintained.

With past privacy policy changes, when Facebook would ask its customers to vote, only a very small percentage would do so, he pointed out.

Richter’s latest post had garnered just 1,085 comments four days following its publication, for example. That’s a drop in the bucket, considering Facebook has a user base that numbers some 400 million active users worldwide.

Even if Facebook were to change its privacy policies every week to accommodate new services or advertisers, such a practice would not necessarily be illegal, Vogel continued.

“Under FTC rules, as long as Facebook establishes what its rules are for its users, then it is not breaking any laws,” he explained.

Another problem is that many users still don’t realize how the seemingly harmless data they post can hurt them, said Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

“People don’t have a full comprehension of the consequences,” Stephens told TechNewsWorld — “especially if Facebook keeps changing the policies. It begins to be white noise.”

Another issue is that third parties are getting more and more creative in leveraging user data, he noted, and some of the ways they’re doing it would take consumers aback — if they knew.

One underwriting methodology considers a person’s social network friends when pricing loans, for instance.

“Frankly I would question the value of that data when determining a loan or credit card rate,” said Stephens, “but some institutions do feel it adds value to the mix in their underwriting standards.”

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