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Facebook saves face

Katherine Sola | November 30, 2011

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Yesterday, Facebook announced they’d be taking users’ privacy a lot more seriously. The network reached an agreement with the FTC, the American Federal Trade Commission. The FTC had charged Facebook with deceiving users by telling them their information would remain private but later making it public without consulting them.

The FTC has a list of instances when Facebook has deceived customers. For example, they allowed third-party apps to access users’ personal data despite assuring users this wouldn’t happen. They claimed that photos and videos on deleted accounts would disappear, but the content was accessible after deactivation. The charges also include the December 2009 debacle when Facebook changed users’ settings without telling them. The list goes on, with stark phrases like “Facebook promised users that it would not share their personal information with advertisers. It did.”

Trouble with the FTC could cause a lot of problems for Facebook, so they’ve accepted the limitations proposed by the commission. It looks like privacy will be more straightforward at Facebook. For example, they won’t be able to override users’ privacy settings without explicit consent, and they’ll have to truthfully represent their privacy policies. The FTC clearly doesn’t trust Facebook to police itself, so every two years they’ll need to get an independent third-party confirmation that the regulations are followed. In the words of FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, “Facebook’s innovation does not have to come at the expense of consumer privacy. The FTC action will ensure it will not.”

By contrast, Facebook is presenting itself as a responsible organization that appreciates the FTC rulings as helpful suggestions. They’re particularly eager to downplay the accusations of deceit. Zuckerberg wrote a rare post for the Facebook blog about privacy. He says: “Overall, I think we have a good history of providing transparency and control over who can see your information.” Changes that the FTC called “unfair and deceptive,” Zuckerberg characterizes as “mistakes,” due to “poor execution.” We’d love to hear his explanation of exactly how these “mistakes” happened.

The settlement has confirmed Facebook’s poor treatment of users. But at the same time, it suggests the future Facebook will incur less criticism and incite fewer controversies. Such stability bodes well for Facebook’s initial public offering, which is likely to happen before the end of the year. Apparently, each user will be valued at around $125. That includes the FTC, whose press release ended with the words “Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.”

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