Privacy groups ask FTC to stop Facebook policy changes

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White House updating online privacy policy

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A new Obama administration privacy policy explains how the government will gather the user data of online visitors to WhiteHouse.gov, mobile apps and social media sites, and it clarifies that online comments, whether tirades or tributes, are in the open domain.

But the privacy advocates, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Consumer Watchdog and the Center for Digital Democracy, say that the changes encroach on user privacy and may violate a 2011 settlement between Facebook and the FTC.

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the groups’ letter to the FTC. Agency spokeswoman Cheryl Hackley confirmed that the FTC has received the document, but declined additional comment.

The 2011 settlement said that Facebook must obtain consumer consent before sharing information beyond the limits of its established privacy settings.

In the letter, the groups say that the proposed changes — particularly regarding advertisements — do just that. In fact, the groups argue, the proposed policies have strong echoes of Facebook’s now-defunct Beacon advertising program, which led to a $9.5 million settlement with users who said they were not properly notified that Facebook used data from outside Web sites to target ads on its network.

“The proposed changes are broad enough to allow Facebook to resurrect programs similar to Beacon, a program that just about everyone including Facebook agreed was wrong and was subsequently shut down,” the groups said in the letter. “It requires ‘Alice in Wonderland’ logic to see this as anything but a major setback for the privacy rights of Facebook users.”

In its revised policy, Facebook explicitly states that users’ names, profile pictures, content and information such as pages they like can be used in network ads. As Facebook said, “This means, for example, that you permit a business or other entity to pay us to display your name and/or profile picture with your content or information, without any compensation to you.”

The groups also said that the policies’ new language on ads, as it pertains to minors, opens up the network’s younger users to potential privacy issues. The new policies say that those under 18 must get permission from at least one parent or legal guardian before signing up for the site, which allows the company to use teens’ information in the same way as regular users.

“Such ‘deemed consent’ eviscerates any meaningful limits over the commercial exploitation of the images and names of young Facebook users,” the groups wrote in their letter.

In addition to EPIC, CDD and Consumer Watchdog, representatives from Patient Privacy Rights, U.S. Public Interest Research Group and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse also signed the letter.

(Washington Post Co. chairman and chief executive Donald E. Graham is a member of Facebook’s board of directors.)

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