Facebook rule changes spark new privacy complaints

UPDATE:  Facebook said late Thursday that it’s reviewing user comments submitted since the proposed changes were announced on Aug. 29. While it’s no longer accepting input, the changes won’t go into effect before next week.

“We are taking the time to ensure that user comments are reviewed and taken into consideration to determine whether further updates are necessary and we expect to finalize the process in the coming week,” a Facebook spokesperson said.

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It’s almost a law of physics:  Action – Facebook announces changes to its terms of service. Reaction – Watchdog groups complain the new rules would give the company more leeway to violate users’ privacy.

In the latest flap, a coalition of watchdog groups is asking the Federal Trade Commission to block a set of proposed new rules that Facebook announced two weeks ago – which the critics say would make it easier for Facebook to use members’ profile pictures and other personal information in advertising.

The critics say the new rules violate terms of a settlement that Facebook reached with the FTC over previous privacy complaints in 2011.  Ironically, the social networking company drafted the new rules partly in response to a recent settlement in another privacy case brought by class-action lawyers, which required Facebook to warn its members more clearly about how it uses their information.

But the critics are complaining that the new rules have changed the “default” setting for Facebook users’ consent, so that users are now assumed to have given permission for their information to be used. They also charge the company has changed its privacy controls so it’s more difficult for users to withdraw that permission.

“As a consequence, Facebook users who reasonably believed that their images and content would not be used for commercial purposes without their consent will now find their pictures showing up on the pages of their friends endorsing the products of Facebook’s advertisers,” the critics say in a letter sent to the FTC by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Watchdog and three other privacy groups.

Facebook says it hasn’t changed its practices and is only trying to explain them more clearly.  The company has posted the changes on its site and is inviting public comment.  And while a number of Facebook users have expressed their displeasure — sample comment: “Poor decision, Facebook.” — it seems likely the changes will be adopted.

The FTC has shown an interest in privacy issues involving Internet companies like Facebook and Google, but so far there’s been no word of any reaction to the latest complaint.

 (Photo of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg by John Green/Bay Area News Group)

Brandon Bailey Brandon Bailey (350 Posts)

Brandon Bailey covers Google, Facebook and Yahoo for the San Jose Mercury News, reporting on the business and culture of the Internet.