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Facebook Gets the Attention of the FTC




For those of you who have ever been in sales or were trained to sell you may have heard the expression that it is “better to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission”. Nice pithy little saying that simply means, go ahead and do what you want to do to get the job done and if there are any issues they will be worked out. While that is something that produces chuckles amongst the rebel sales force, in practice it often ends up in bad business and forcing people to change things that don’t need to be changed.

It appears that Facebook is subscribing to the same policy as it relates to their privacy policies since they made privacy an after thought by opening up the Facebook world to the everyone else in the world by default. As one might expect, privacy advocates like EPIC (Electronic Privacy Information Center) don’t like the direction this is heading so they wrote a complaint to the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) and MediaPost tells us the result:

In a letter dated Jan. 14, David Vladeck, head of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, told the Electronic Privacy Information Center that its complaint about recent privacy changes at Facebook “raises issues of particular interest for us at this time.”

Vladeck added that he has asked an official to arrange a followup meeting with EPIC, but also said he can’t currently confirm or deny whether the FTC has opened an investigation. FTC investigations are not public until the agency either issues a complaint or closes the matter.

The FTC’s consumer protection chief also said in his letter to EPIC that the commission plans to focus on privacy issues raised by social networks at the next roundtable, scheduled to be held in Berkeley, Calif. on Jan. 28.

“As the amount of personal information shared on social networking sites grows, and the number of third parties and advertising networks with access to such information grows, it is important that consumers understand how their data is being shared and what privacy rules apply,” Vladeck wrote. “The Commission staff believes it is critical that companies provide transparency about how this data is being handled, maintained, shared, and protected, and what steps consumers may take to control the use of their information.”

While these things often are a lot of bluster and noise from government agencies one has to suspect that with the current administration’s desire to control every aspect of everything for everybody this will get some attention for sure. One thing most companies like to avoid is being investigated by the Feds but it could very well be a part of Facebook’s future. They have already capitulated to the demands of the Canadian government so the precedent is in place for Facebook to have to do something different if there is significant pressure and the right threats coming from Washington.

To get the ball rolling a complaint was filed.

Last month, EPIC and nine other groups filed a complaint alleging that Facebook’s new privacy settings constitute an unfair and deceptive change in terms.

This is in addition to Mark Zuckerberg’s redefinition of privacy in the online world, in which he essentially said that everyone now knows that there is not much privacy on the Internet and as a result the once super private Facebook should open it’s policies so that everyone can “share”. (I am SO glad that I have someone like Mark Zuckerberg who is so wise and all knowing to make that decision for me. How about you?). The net result is being arrogant enough to attract the attention and potential ire of the Feds. Oh well.

Lastly there has been an alleged Facebook anonymous employee who puts words to what those in the know likely assumed but those who have no clue would not be too thrilled with by saying

In addition, a Facebook employee allegedly said recently that users’ messages are stored in a database regardless of whether users attempt to delete them. “We track everything. Every photo you view, every person you’re tagged with, every wall-post you make, and so forth,” the employee allegedly added.

Facebook’s response?

Facebook spokesperson Andrew Noyes said that EPIC’s latest filing “offers little or no new information to substantiate the claims they make.”

So will 2010 be Facebook’s year of privacy? If it is, it is off to a bit of a rocky start.