The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the impending settlement, is reporting that Facebook and the Federal Trade Commission are close to a settlement over alleged deceptive practices with respect to several Facebook features, including its privacy settings. Under the settlement agreement, Facebook will be required to make all future privacy changes “opt-in,” requiring Facebook to obtain its users’ express consent before making information that’s already on the site available to a wider audience than previously intended. The settlement wont explicitly dictate how Facebook must obtain user consent for new features in the future, but it will require Facebook to agree to independent privacy audits for the next 20 years.
This settlement is by no means unprecedented territory. In March 2011, the FTC imposed similar conditions in a settlement with Google over Google’s rollout of its “Buzz” Social Network. In June 2010, the FTC also imposed similar conditions for privacy issues on Twitter. Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, says that this is all part of a balancing act Facebook must do in order to settle the privacy complaints before its IPO. The people briefed on the settlement, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the FTC commissioners have not yet approved the settlement, said that although a settlement is close, it was unclear how long it would take to complete the deal.
Despite Facebook’s popularity, with more than 800 million active users, the company’s privacy woes go back several years. The settlement addresses issues raised in several complaints the FTC has received, including from groups like the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). The settlement also focuses directly on privacy changes that Facebook made in December of 2009. In December, critics argued that Facebook, under the guise of simplifying privacy settings and increasing awareness of Facebook’s privacy setting controls, exposed information that could previously be made private by its users, including profile photos, gender, friend lists and current city. Facebook also removed the ability to opt out of some features. The problem that many users and privacy advocates had with Facebook’s changes was the fact that some of Facebook’s recommended changes urged users “to share everything with everyone—pretty much the polar opposite of what most people would want to do.” After the public outcry prompted by the company’s December 2009 privacy changes, Facebook in May 2010 decided to limit the amount of information users were required to make public, and restored the ability to opt out of certain tools.
There are some that argue that privacy and social networks are inherently incompatible, that social networks are designed to share information with others. So before you post that comment about how much you hate your job or how obnoxious your boss is, perhaps you should think about who that message might be shared with. And then there are others who argue that the settlement, although a step forward for the privacy rights of Facebook’s users, does not do enough to secure the long term privacy rights of the company’s users. As for Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook co-creator and CEO is banking on society’s propensity to willingly share information online about every aspect of our lives. In fact, during Zuckerberg’s 2011 keynote speech at Facebook’s yearly conference, F8, Zuckerberg introduced several new features planned for Facebook, such as Timeline, meant to facilitate the exponential expansion of shared information. One user, in response to the new features, tweeted the following message to the tune of “Every Breath You Take” from the Police: “Every single day Every word you say Every game you play Every night you stay I’ll be watching you.”
So, where do you stand?