Groups push feds to halt Facebook's tracking

Privacy groups want regulators in the U.S. and Europe to stop Facebook's recently announced plans to track users when they’re on other websites.

In a letter to the Federal Trade Commission and the Irish Data Protection Commission on Tuesday, U.S. and European privacy advocates pushed regulators to investigate Facebook over its new online tracking program.

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The letter pushes the groups “to take the appropriate action” and “order Facebook to reverse its new data collection practice and develop public accountability mechanisms for the company to ensure it is complying with required privacy practices.”

The letter was sent by a committee within the Trans Atlantic Consumer Dialogue, a coalition of consumer groups in the U.S. in Europe, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Center for Digital Democracy and Brussels-based BEUC - The European Consumer Organization.

In a blog post last month, Facebook announced that it would join others in the online advertising industry and begin tracking its users as they navigated across the Internet to more specifically target ads based on each user’s browsing history.

“Today, we learn about your interests primarily from the things you do on Facebook, such as Pages you like,” the post said. “Starting soon in the US, we will also include information from some of the websites and apps you use.”

Some privacy advocates criticized Facebook’s proposed expansion in online tracking and raised questions about whether it violates a 2011 settlement the company has with the FTC over privacy complaints.

In their letter, the groups compared Facebook’s new plans to a controversial 2007 Facebook tracking program — named “Beacon” — that allowed the social media network to track users when they were on other websites.

Users protested Beacon, with some filing a class action lawsuit over the claimed privacy violations.

“Facebook abandoned the program during the course of the lawsuit and publicly apologized, admitting that the program had been a mistake,” the letter said.

The groups also took issue with the new privacy tools Facebook began rolling out when announcing the expanded online tracking.

In the same blog post, Facebook announced a new “ad preferences” tool that would let users see the rationale behind the ads they were being shown and indicate what kinds of ads they would and would not like to see.

This tool is not an adequate privacy setting, the privacy groups’ letter said.

“Users cannot control the data collection that results in targeted advertising; users can only control how much targeted advertising they must look at.” 

Regulators should “act immediately to notify the company that it must suspend its proposed changes in business practices to determine whether it complies with current U.S. and EU law,” the groups said, adding that the regulators’ findings should be publicly available.

A Facebook spokeswoman defended the company's expanded targeted advertising methods.

"The level of control people have over advertising on Facebook exceeds industry standards," she said.

"Anyone can opt out of advertising based on the websites they visit and apps they use, and we offer ad preferences, a way for people to add and remove interest categories to improve the ads they see on Facebook.”

-- This post was updated at 11:23 a.m.