Facebook to Seek Consent

Facebook has announced that it is changing the way it amends users’ privacy settings. The news that the social network site will ask users to opt into any changes in the way it uses their personal information has been welcomed by privacy campaigners. Facebook is yet to comment.

Whereas previously Facebook merely announced changes to a users’ settings without requesting permission, this change puts the user back in control. The change comes after an investigation by the US Federal Trade Commission, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal. It is also suggested in the report that the social networking site has agreed to privacy audits for the next 20 years by an independent organisation.

One point that has not been clarified by the FTC is exactly how a users consent will be obtained. Privacy International, a UK based advocacy group commented “Facebook has historically been extremely resistant to transparency in its own operations, so we welcome measures that would force the company to obtain express consent of its users.

“However, it seems likely that the FTC’s demands will only present a temporary obstacle in the path of Facebook’s ambitions to collect its users’ information. “Faced with reams of small print, most users are likely to automatically agree to policy changes, with each change bringing us one step closer to Zuckerberg’s vision of a privacy-free future.”

Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, was questioned on US show Charlie Rose about the firm’s privacy policies earlier this week: “You have control over every single thing you’ve shared on Facebook,” he said, “You can take it down.” Mr Zuckerberg also claimed that other search engines and advertisers gathered a “huge amount of information” about internet users through cookies, which is  “less transparent than what is happening at Facebook”.

Online security and cybercrime expert, Tero Pollanen, commented “Privacy policies and security settings are a hot topic at the moment. Statistics have shown a rise in the amount of personal information found on the internet, and a rise in online scams and identity theft. People need to be more aware of online risks and know how to protect themselves. My blog, www.tero-pollanen.blogspot.com has tips for staying safe online, news about current scams and security essentials”.

As to the reason for the FTC’s intervention, it is reportedly being linked to the campaign group Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). The group filed a complaint 2 years ago with the commission, claiming that the changes in privacy settings “violate user expectations, diminish user privacy and contradict Facebook’s own representations”. EPIC also noted that Facebook users, security experts, and others had raised concerns about the change. A year later, EPIC filed a follow-up complaint claiming the social network had violated consumer protection law.

Facebook’s performance is staggering: according to the site it has over 800 million members who have used the site at least once in the past 30 days. In addition to this, the Reuters news agency reported that the site’s revenues for the first six months of this year alone totalled £1bn, thanks to advertising. Andrew Charlesworth, director of the centre for IT and law at the University of Bristol, points out “Users are not social networking sites’ primary customers, advertisers and marketers are,” said.

“While the FTC settlement indicates sites must be more open about the ways they make personal data available, and provide users with greater control, Facebook and others will already be rethinking the techniques they use to persuade users to keep their personal data publicly accessible.”