The Facebook Privacy Wars Heat Up

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>When it comes to Facebook's privacy policies, Mark Zuckerberg is fighting an increasingly lonely fight.

Bloomberg reports that a group of 15 consumer groups filed complaints against Facebook with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) late Wednesday. The filing comes barely a week after a group of U.S. Senators -- Chuck Schumer, Michael Bennet, Mark Begich, and Al Franken -- sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg expressing concern over "recent changes to the Facebook privacy policy and the use of personal data by third-party websites." Senator Schumer has also asked the FTC to establish guidelines for social networking sites. While tech journalists debated the necessity of such an effort, Facebook suffered yet another privacy glitch, releasing personal messages to unintended recipients.

These incidents are the latest in a long string of privacy-based controversies surrounding the social networking giant. Five Facebook users in California sued the company in August 2009 over "allegedly misappropriating their names, photos and private information." In March of this year, a San Jose federal judge ordered Facebook to pay a $9.5 million settlement to the plaintiffs of a class-action lawsuit concerning Facebook's "Beacon" program, which published information about what consumers were purchasing. As part of the settlement, the decision allocates $6 million to a "digital trust fund" that will go to organizations that study online privacy.

On Thursday, Macworld's Heather Kelly and Nick Mediati reported that users who visit certain sites while logged into Facebook have found pieces of software automatically (and surreptitiously) installed on their computers. According to Kelly and Mediati, "stopping it isn't as easy as checking a box in your privacy settings."

Facebook's recent privacy infringements may indicate an ongoing trend for the company. "Facebook may be in for the long haul on this one. It's bad enough that they have played so loosely with their users' privacy as of late but they can't seem to get out of their own way either," writes Frank Reed at Marketing Pilgrim. "Yesterday's screw-up around their chat feature further reveals just how suspect Facebook really is regarding privacy."

Zuckerberg, however, claims to be driven by external forces. During a January interview with Michael Arrington of TechCrunch, Zuckerberg asserted that Facebook's privacy changes -- making users' profiles, interests, and subscribed-to pages public to search engines -- were simply in response to "changing social norms":

When we got started in my dorm room at Harvard, the questions a lot of people asked was "Why would I want to put any information on the Internet at all?" People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people, and that social norm is just something that has evolved over time. We view it as our role in the system to constantly be innovating and updating what our system is to reflect what the current social norms are.


Web and tech writers scoffed at Zuckerberg's claim: "It's especially sketchy that Zuckerberg's diagnosis of our Brave New World of diminishing privacy is utterly self-serving," wrote Derek Thompson in January. "The more information that Facebook users share, the more information Facebook can vacuum into whatever ad-based revenue stream they're debuting this quarter."

Changing social norms have not yet obviated privacy worries, as Zuckerman predicted. Facebook's introduction of its Open Graph API and "Like" button raised similar concerns among tech writers, but bloggers are not often a catalyst for corporate change. An FTC investigation, however, could prove more effective in shaking Zuckerberg's belief in the diminishing value of privacy.

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Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine. 

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