Privacy advocates want Facebook probed on recent changes

In a letter Thursday, a group of privacy advocates asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether recent changes by Facebook to encourage users to share more information violate consumers privacy.

For users who wish to maintain something approaching their old privacy settings, Facebook has offered solutions that are confusing, impractical, and unfair, the advocates wrote. 

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The groups complaints about Facebooks adoption of frictionless sharing for some applications and the start of Timeline, an updated profile that makes a users entire history on the site easily viewable at once, reveal a fundamental divide on the nature of sharing data online.

The groups, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center, American Civil Liberties Union and American Library Association, claim the changes have made sharing information on Facebook a passive rather than active activity, meaning consumers might unwittingly reveal more than they intend.

New features such as the Facebook Ticker and Timeline were also targeted because they allow users to view more information about other users without having to actively seek it out. Facebook argues users have full control over who can view their profile information.

The groups view frictionless sharing — in which a user can choose to let an app share all of his or her activity with a given audience — as particularly troublesome, arguing the practice is consistent with Facebooks attempts to push consumers to publish more information online.

But Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has consistently maintained that users have shown a preference for sharing more information online, not less. He claims Facebook is simply giving users the tools to share as much as they wish. But the privacy advocates argue that Facebook is looking to profit from that data.

Some groups believe people shouldnt have the option to easily share the songs they are listening to or other content with their friends, a Facebook spokesman said. We couldnt disagree more, and have built a system that people can choose to use and we hope people will give it a try.

If not, they can simply continue listening and reading as they always have. If people do try the new apps announced by Facebook last week, theyll find that they have complete control over whether their information is shared and with whom. 

Also at issue for the groups is Facebooks use of cookies, which they claim the firm uses to track the Internet activity of users even after they have logged off Facebook, such as when users visit pages that feature FacebookLike button.

By concealing the companys tracking of users post-log-out activity and materially changing the framework under which users share data without providing a clear opportunity for users to maintain existing privacy protections, Facebook is engaging in unfair and deceptive trade practices, the groups wrote in their letter.

Reports of the post-logout tracking have already prompted Reps. Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.) to request an FTC probe of Facebook. Facebook claims it does not store any information that identifies users, and doesnt use the data to track anyone.

Even though we werent using this information, its important to us that we address even potential issues, and we appreciate the issue was brought to our attention, the Facebook spokesman said.

When [researcher Nik Cubrilovic] provided us with additional information that allowed is to identify these three cookies, we moved quickly to fix the cookies so that they wont include unique information in the future when people log out.

The rest of the groups 14-page letter, particularly the sections focused on Timeline and frictionless sharing, show a strong aversion to encouraging users to share more information.

Facebook has argued that that mindset is simply not reflective of consumer behavior, but a previous attempt at broadcasting information about users actvity via the Beacon program prompted a quick reversal and apology from Facebook, along with a slew of lawsuits.

Many of Facebooks recent changes, most notably Timeline, are scheduled to go live for most users over the weekend. The publics reception to the changes and the efficacy of Facebooks privacy controls in allowing them to prevent the unintentional sharing of data will likely determine whether more policymakers and stakeholders join the calls for action.