Facebook privacy changes draw fire

Facebook may have chosen the day before Thanksgiving to announce some proposed changes in its privacy policy last week, but it didn’t escape the attention of two watchdog groups, which are formally asking the giant social network to reconsider.

In a joint letter this week, the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Center for Digital Democracy suggest the proposed changes could run afoul of Facebook’s 2011 settlement of privacy allegations brought by federal regulators. In that settlement, the company agreed not to make changes to users’ privacy settings without obtaining their consent.

At first blush, some of Facebook’s proposed changes seem relatively minor. But the privacy groups are focusing on three issues, starting with the company’s desire to eliminate its policy of letting Facebook users vote on any changes to its governance rules.

The current policy requires a vote anytime 7,000 or more users post comments on a proposed change, although the vote is considered non-binding unless 30 percent of all Facebook users cast ballots. That’s a pretty high hurdle, considering that Facebook now counts 1 billion users — and only 380,000 voted the last time an election was held. But the privacy groups argue that scrapping the voting system raises questions about Facebook’s willingness to take users’ concerns seriously. Facebook says it cares about members’ views and will create other ways for them to provide feedback.

The privacy groups also complain that a proposal for changing Facebook message controls could lead to unwanted spam. They’re also concerned about a proposal that would let Facebook share user information between its affiliated companies, such as the recently acquired Instagram. The watchdogs are comparing that to Google’s recent announcement that it will consolidate data acquired from various products, which drew criticism from groups concerned that it would allow Google (or others) to compile a broader dossier of information on its users.

Facebook says sharing the information will help it provide more useful and relevant services. Industry analysts say that’s likely to include advertising: In a research note this week, Sterne Agee’s Arvind Bhatia wrote:  “This change could be an indication that Facebook is planning to monetize Instragram in the near future, as it would allow Instagram to use Facebook’s data to personalize the Instagram user experience and perhaps target advertisements.”

We’re likely to hear more on this topic: Facebook’s comment period for the proposed changes ends at 9 a.m. on Thursday. But there were already 18,000 comments by Wednesday, which means a vote will be held.



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