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Watchdog files complaint over Facebook 'privacy' settings

EPIC violation of user expectation

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The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has filed a formal complaint with the US Federal Trade Commission over Facebook's recent changes to user privacy settings, claiming the changes are in violation of consumer-protection law.

In the complaint, the influential consumer watchdog urges the FTC to open an investigation into the new settings and require the social networking outfit to revert to its previous policies. "[The changes] violate user expectations, diminish user privacy, and contradict Facebook’s own representations," the complaint reads.

Facebook rolled out its new privacy settings last week. Though it asks each of its 350 million user to review some settings before they're put into place - and though it gives users the ability to customize their settings for individual pieces of data they post to the site - the changes are shamelessly designed to expose more personal info to world+dog. And some settings are beyond the user's control.

Most notably, a user's name, city, gender, photograph, and selected "fan pages" can now be viewed by anyone on the web. Whether you like it or not. Facebook has now changed its setup so that users can opt-out of exposing their friends list. In asking users to review additional settings, the site also recommends that they expose status updates, posted content, details about friends and family, and other personal data to the web at large.

In a statement shared with The New York Times, Facebook said it was "disappointed" with the EPIC complaint and defended its new policies. "Facebook’s plan to provide users control over their privacy and how they share content is unprecedented in the Internet age," the statement reads.

"We have gone to great lengths to inform users about our platform changes, beginning with our July announcement; founder Mark Zuckerberg’s open letter to our 350 million users; our robust press and analyst outreach; the notice-and-comment framework for our new privacy policy; and simple customization tools for users."

The company also says it discussed the new privacy setting with the FTC before they were launched.

Nonetheless, EPIC's complaint - available here (PDF) - says the new settings classify as Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices under the Federal Trade Commission Act. "EPIC urges the Commission to investigate Facebook, determine the extent of the harm to consumer privacy and safety, require Facebook to restore privacy settings that were previously available as detailed below, require Facebook to give users meaningful control over personal information, and seek appropriate injunctive and compensatory relief," it reads.

The complaint also argues that the new settings will put more data into the hands of third-party application developers. Which is merely stating the obvious. It's signed not only by EPIC but by American Library Association, the Center for Digital Democracy, the Consumer Federation of America, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, and myriad other privacy organizations. ®

<i?Update: This story has been updated to show that Facebook now lets you hide your friends list from world+dog.

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