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Facebook Faces Privacy Fightback by Regulators; How Has the Social Network Been Affected?

Posted on the 01 December 2011 by Periscope @periscopepost

Facebook faces privacy fightback by regulators; how has the social network been affected?

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives in Paris for the e-G8, 25th May, 2011. Photo credit: Cyril Attias

Facebook has, once again, been criticised for its failure to protect the privacy of its users. The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ruled Tuesday that Facebook breached privacy regulations, insisted that Facebook undergo regular “privacy audits” and held that the social network would have to pay fines for future privacy breaches. At the same time, the social network faces another legal challenge to its privacy laws, this time in Germany.

As Facebook’s IPO looms, what effect has this latest criticism had on the social network’s reputation? To what extent do the controls imposed on Facebook ensure our privacy will be maintained? And how do these latest legal battles affect Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s plans for a privacy-free digital utopia?

Past failures. In a rare blog post, Zuckerberg accepted that the company had made “a bunch of mistakes”. The Telegraph helpfully listed Facebook’s major previous privacy gaffes. For this latest round of criticism, the mistakes include the failure to actually delete deleted content and the sharing of personal information with third party apps. The FTC has accused Facebook of “unfair and deceptive” practices and of deceiving “consumers by telling them they could keep their information private, and then repeatedly allowing it to be shared and made public”.

User control. Zuckerberg acknowledged the need for users to enjoy “complete control” over “who they share with”. Yet this latest privacy failure was a result of Facebook introducing changes without any consultation, an approach described by several commentators as “change first, apologize later”. The FTC decision addresses this, requiring Facebook to “obtain consumers’ affirmative express consent” before introducing changes which “override their privacy preferences”.  New privacy settings will therefore be “opt-in”, rather than just after the fact “opt-out”.

A good step, but still some unresolved issues. The FTC decision is a step in the right direction – especially now that Facebook will be forced to ask for permission rather than beg forgiveness – judged Chris Conley, writing on the American Civil Liberties Union blog, but it doesn’t tackle all of the social network’s privacy issues. The decision doesn’t for example, deal with the “app gap”, how much information Facebook shares with third-party app companies,  and doesn’t regulate privacy with regard to information that doesn’t have a privacy setting at all.

Popular approval. Despite listing Facebook’s major privacy gaffes, Emma Barnett, tech blogger for The Telegraph, celebrated Zuckerberg’s “unbelievably amazing job” in changing attitudes to privacy and was dismissive of the FTC’s insistence that Facebook must now seek users’ consent. She also gave him credit for redefining the internet from a place for finding information “to one dedicated to socialising”. Zuckerberg has made placatory noises throughout the week, insisting that he is “committed to making Facebook the leader in transparency and control around privacy”; sounds like people are listening, as there is little sign that Facebook’s reputation has suffered at all.

Let off the hook. Ryan Tate, writing for Gawker, was scathing in his assessment of the FTC’s ruling, and accused the “shameless social network” of “playing” the government: The settlement between Facebook and the FTC as a “mockery of the idea of holding corporations accountable”.

Culture clash. Though Facebook have reached a settlement in the US, the social network faces more difficult battles in Europe. In Germany, Hamburg’s Data Protection Authority is reported to be preparing court action against Facebook to challenge features such as the “like” button and “tag suggestions”. The potential legal battle in Germany throws into question Zuckerberg’s privacy ethos: His stated aim of eliminating privacy barriers and encouraging people to share is in conflict with prevalent attitudes towards privacy in Europe. Professor Douwe Korff, a data protection expert, told The Telegraph that privacy is “deeply embedded in German law” and predicts that the legal battle in Germany will be “a very important test case to decide how companies behave towards individual privacy online.”

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