Facebook's email move shows that the company "still believes that it can override users’ preferences without informing them or obtaining their consent," the advocacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center said Wednesday in a letter to the Federal Trade Commission.
Facebook recently changed users' profiles by hiding the Gmail, Yahoo or other email addresses users had submitted and instead displaying Facebook.com email addresses. Facebook left users in the dark about its high-handed move, but word trickled out this weekend on the Web. People can go into their settings and reverse Facebook's change, but it's not yet clear how many Facebook users (other than those who read tech blogs) are aware of the shift.
EPIC is now asking the FTC to probe the email switch. The privacy group says that the move calls into question whether Facebook will comply with a proposed consent decree in another case; that order, which isn't yet final, prohibits Facebook from overriding users' privacy settings without their opt-in consent. (The tentative order stems from Facebook's decision several years ago to revise users' settings so that information that had been private was now public.)
Facebook reportedly says that its email switch didn't change people's privacy settings, but their "visibility" settings -- as if there's a difference.
EPIC also says the email shift is an unfair and deceptive trade practice. "Substituting the company’s own email address for the email address preferred by the user has the
practical effect of directing email messages to Facebook’s servers that would otherwise have been received through the email service chosen by the recipient," EPIC argues. "It is widely known that access to user email provides additional opportunities for commercialization of data. And the collection of email necessarily creates new security risks for users."
Whether the email shift amounts to an unfair practice is debatable. Clearly, however, there's a problem when a company like Facebook decides on its own, in secret, to hide users' contact information.