by Bill Snyder

Facebook in Hot Water (Again) Over Its Ever-Changing Privacy Policies

Sep 16, 20133 mins
FacebookPrivacySocial Networking Apps

The FTC is investigating Facebook yet again in relation to privacy polices that advocates say exploit users' personal data.

Whether they’re on TV, the Web or (yuck) in your local movie theater, ads are often the price of admission. Sure, they can be annoying, but businesses that offer free or relatively low-cost services need ad revenue to survive. Still, I don’t want my name or other personal information used in ads, especially if I do not give my permission.

That’s exactly what Facebook intends to do, and for the hundredth (thousandth, maybe?) time, the social network is in hot water with privacy advocates and a federal regulatory agency.

Reacting to complaints by half a dozen advocacy groups, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is looking into whether or not Mark “Boy Billionaire” Zuckerberg and his minions violated a 2011 agreement not to include Facebook user names or other personal data in advertisements without those users’ permission.

Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook last month said it was going to change the language of its data-use policy and its statement of rights and responsibilities, to include language that states what kind of information it pulls from user profiles for advertising. 

In its proposed policies, Facebook says that users who sign up for its services agree to have their profile pictures, names and other information, such as brands or pages they “like,” included in advertisements. That, of course, is exactly what I mean when I say I don’t want to star in somebody else’s ads, even if I “like” them. Even worse, the language in the policies gives the company a huge loophole that would allow it to use data from people under the age of 18.

In a letter to the FTC, members of six advocacy groups asked the agency to hold Facebook to the 2011 agreement. And the groups spelled out in some detail how they believe the social network is going against its word:

“Facebook users who reasonably believed that their images and content would not be used for commercial purposes without their consent will now find their pictures showing up on the pages of their friends endorsing the products of Facebook’s advertisers. Remarkably, their images could even be used by Facebook to endorse products that the user does not like or even use.”

I find the section on the use of minor’s information particularly “pernicious,” as the privacy advocates put it. It essentially says that parents have to consent to the use of their children’s information, but consent is said to have been obtained when a child signs up for the service.

For its part, Facebook says the new policies aren’t really changes, merely clarifications of policies that comply with the 2011 agreement. The FTC will decide the final outcome, but there is a larger question: If no one is surprised when Facebook commits (or appears to commit) a privacy violation, why do the people outraged by those violations continue to use Facebook? After all, it should be obvious at this point that anything done on Facebook is essentially public.

I still think we should all hold Zuckerberg’s feet to the fire and complain as loudly as we can when companies try to take advantage of their users. Like it or not, Facebook is an essential tool for millions of people, and the executives of Facebook, who have become very rich by dint of the participation of those people, owe their users some respect.