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Data cops: Facebook privacy plans must be 'modified'

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Two privacy campaign groups have urged Facebook to rethink plans to change its terms of service, designed to help the social network squeeze more money out of ads. Meanwhile data regulators have stated that the plans will have to change so as to comply with privacy rules.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) penned a joint letter requesting Facebook reconsider its proposals that are supposed to be implemented tomorrow.

The US-based privacy outfits objected to three areas: the axing of users' right to vote on Facebook policy changes; changes to the blocking of unwanted messages; and, most crucially, a shift to share users' personal data across its growing online estate now that photo-sharing startup Instagram is part of the family.

Facebook, which floated on the Nasdaq in May, has told its users that it hoped to "improve the quality of ads" by making the tweaks to its service.

But EPIC and CDD aren't happy with the plans.

"Because these proposed changes raise privacy risks for users, may be contrary to law, and violate your previous commitments to users about site governance, we urge you to withdraw the proposed changes," the groups pleaded with Facebook.

EPIC, in a short statement, pointed out that while it's true that Facebook is now on Wall Street with the big money boys, the company remains tied to a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) settlement that "prohibits the company from changing privacy settings without the affirmative consent of users or misrepresenting the privacy or security of users' personal information".

Indeed, as of November 2011, Facebook agreed to bi-annual privacy audits for two decades as part of its deal with the FTC. At the time the US watchdog said Facebook must be clear about changes to its website, including providing a "prominent notice" to users.

The social network was told it should obtain "express consent" before a user's information is shared beyond any privacy settings already established by an individual connected to Facebook.

Arguably then, Facebook is failing to honour at least part of its agreement with the FTC: the website did inform all of its users of the plans in an email outlining the proposed tweaks. But it may have fallen down on the requirement to seek "express consent" for sharing data beyond the limits set in place by users. That said, the stateside regulator is yet to publicly express any disquiet about the company's incoming privacy policy overhaul.

In contrast, here in Europe, the office of Ireland's Data Protection Commissioner confirmed late last week that it was seeking "urgent clarification" from Facebook - whose European headquarters are in Dublin - about the changes.

Facebook declined to comment on this story beyond pointing to a brief statement made by its Washington-based spokesman Andrew Noyes to the LA Times on Monday. He told the newspaper:

As our company grows, we acquire businesses that become a legal part of our organisation. Those companies sometimes operate as affiliates. We wanted to clarify that we will share information with our affiliates and vice versa, both to help improve our services and theirs, and to take advantage of storage efficiencies.

A spokeswoman at the Irish Data Protection Commission told The Register this morning that the authority had since heard from Facebook about its proposed changes.

"We have sought and received clarifications on a number of aspects and have outlined our position in relation to what consent will be required for aspects of the policy," the commission's spokeswoman said.

"Facebook Ireland has understood this position and we expect the proposed data use policy to be modified to take account of these issues."

El Reg asked Facebook if this meant the company would comply with the Irish Data Protection Commission's request for modifications to the privacy policy or if it would simply forge ahead with the changes and continue to battle with the regulator on the topic of consent.

The company declined to comment and instead redirected us to Facebook's statement from late last week in which it said:

"We are in regular contact with our regulators to ensure that we maintain high standards of transparency in respect of our policies and practices. We expect to maintain a continuous dialogue with the Irish DPC as our service evolves." ®

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