Groups Complain To FTC About Facebook Changes

Privacy groups are trying to get the Federal Trade Commission to take a closer look at Facebook. They've filed a letter with the FTC complaining about the giant social networking site's new privacy controls. Facebook says the new controls give people more power over their privacy. Critics complain the controls are purposefully complicated, and are designed to "push" users to share more information than they used to.

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Facebook has unveiled a new system of privacy settings, along with some recommendations for users. The millions of users now have more options in deciding who can and can't see details of their accounts. But critics say the social networking site is actually trying to push people into sharing even more personal information. NPR's Martin Kaste reports.

MARTIN KASTE: Michael Zimmer is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who specializes in online privacy. He welcomes the new Facebook privacy controls - sort of.

Professor MICHAEL ZIMMER (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Online Privacy Expert): I always appreciate that they're giving more controls. The challenge is that sometimes, it looks like you're sitting in the cockpit of a 747.

KASTE: Zimmer says the sheer complexity of the new options may cause many people to just give up and accept the recommended settings, which Facebook has helpfully preselected. The thing is, those recommended settings usually make an account more public.

Mr. MARC ROTENBERG (Executive Director, Electronic Privacy Information Center): We think this is unfair and deceptive.

KASTE: Marc Rotenberg is head of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC, a group that's leading a campaign to get the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Facebook's privacy practices.

Mr. ROTENBERG: So we are trying to get the Federal Trade Commission to enter the 21st century, to begin to think about companies that are operating online and what their obligations are in terms of fairness and openness.

KASTE: Last month, EPIC sent a letter of complaint to the FTC. It cited numerous examples of what Rotenberg sees as Facebook maneuvering users into being more public. And Facebook is actually removing the choice of keeping certain kinds of information private, such as a user's fan pages, which could provide clues about someone's likes and dislikes to outside search engines.

Facebook says this is all just a false controversy.

Mr. TIM SPARAPANI (Director of Public Policy, Facebook): It's almost astounding that, you know, people are complaining instead of lauding Facebook.

KASTE: Tim Sparapani used to work for the ACLU. Now, he's Facebook's director of public policy. As a former privacy activist, he says he's impressed by how much his new company has done to enhance users' control over their data.

Mr. SPARAPANI: This is the fulfillment of 40 years of work by privacy advocates.

KASTE: Sparapani says Facebook is the first big company that's ever listened to what privacy groups want and implemented progressive data-management principles.

Mr. SPARAPANI: Notice, choice, access by users, transparency about what's happening with data, and control given to users of their data held by companies. We believe that we have actually managed to make those things operational.

KASTE: And Sparapani says the fact that certain important privacy groups have not signed on to the letter of complaint indicates that they agree with him, that they see Facebook's new privacy controls as a victory.

One of the groups he cites is the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Kevin Bankston is EFF's senior staff attorney and he says, not so fast.

Mr. KEVIN BANKSTON (Senior Staff Attorney, Electronic Frontier Foundation): I don't think that Mr. Sparapani has been reading our blog posts carefully enough.

KASTE: Bankston says the EFF didn't sign onto the letter simply because it doesn't have expertise with the FTC, and not because it sees the new Facebook privacy options as a victory.

Mr. BANKSTON: Certainly, we give credit to Facebook for forcing its users, for the first time, to grapple with their privacy settings. But as we made clear in our other statements, we're very concerned by the incredibly broad defaults that the so-called transition tool is pushing on users.

KASTE: The FTC is under no obligation to act on this letter of complaint. Still, it has shown more interest recently in matters of online privacy. And at least one of the new commissioners nominated by President Obama is thought to be a strong consumer privacy advocate.

Back at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Mike Zimmer says the company is feeling the heat.

Prof. ZIMMER: People describe this as sort of Facebook's Microsoft moment, where they become the new target.

KASTE: No matter how many privacy options the site offers, Zimmer says, it's hard to escape the fact that information sharing is what makes Facebook users valuable to marketers. And the company has a powerful financial incentive to discourage its users from becoming too private.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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