Commentary

Facebook Makes Another Privacy Blooper

It's safe to say that Facebook has had more than its share of privacy glitches.

There was the infamous Beacon program, which told people about their friends' purchases at e-commerce sites. Then came the whole terms-of-service fiasco, in which Facebook found itself dealing with a mini-revolt after the site attempted to claim perpetual ownership over material posted by users.

Now, Wiredreports that the company has been snooping on private messages and censoring ones that contain file-sharing links.

Last month, TorrentFreak reported that Facebook had started blocking all links to torrents from The Pirate Bay -- including links in private messages.

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Facebook told Wired it can do so because the site's terms of service allow it to filter illegal content from messages.

But torrent files are not necessarily illegal. In fact a Wired journalist tested Facebook's system by sending a colleague a link to a torrent feed of a book in the public domain -- meaning that no one owns the copyright; Facebook still didn't deliver the message.

Facebook's high-handed tactics also raise serious questions about whether the company is violating a federal wiretapping law. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act generally prohibits email providers from snooping on messages.

To some extent, it's unsettled whether that law applies to messages sent through social networking sites. But Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Kevin Bankston says that at least one judge has ruled that the wiretap law does indeed apply to messages hosted on social sites. In the Viacom/Google litigation, U.S. District Court Judge Louis Stanton ruled Viacom wasn't entitled to view copies of videos that YouTube users had marked "private" because such clips were protected by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

Regardless of whether Facebook broke the law, users likely aren't going to be thrilled to learn that the site believes it can censor messages.

If the company wants to be taken seriously as a communications platform, executives are going to have to start giving more consideration to users' privacy rights.

4 comments about "Facebook Makes Another Privacy Blooper".
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  1. Kristin Hersant from StrongMail Systems, Inc., May 7, 2009 at 5:06 p.m.

    I'm beginning to wonder if "privacy glitch" is the right term. It seems to me that Facebook doesn't have the privacy interests of its users in mind and will continue to push the envelope in this area for commercial gain. It will be interesting to see what the tipping point is... so far the public has been happy enough to continue using their service in spite of repeated attempts to circumvent consumer privacy. I smell an opportunity for a competitor to take them on the way that Facebook took on MySpace when it became "too commercial" and hence vulnerable. They should be careful to not let history repeat itself.

  2. Robert Zager from iconix, inc., May 7, 2009 at 6:37 p.m.

    I suspect that users of Facebook aren't very focused on privacy. Privacy has a lot of nuances and can be hard to understand in 3 second attention bursts. Censorship is another issue.

  3. Michael Fricklas from Viacom Inc., May 7, 2009 at 7:51 p.m.

    The point is that the protocol is overwhelmingly used for piracy and that users of the protocol refuse to take any responsibility for infringement. That makes Facebook's approach responsible - there are plenty of other ways to distribute public domain works. If you agree that protecting the rights of artists and the ability of journalists and musicians and so many others to make a living, then it is wrong to criticize actions that help in protecting against piracy without also noting the important benefits. If torrent sites would agree to filter their sites for infringement - then there would be no need for Facebook to block links, and the public domain would benefit. That would be good for everyone (but people who want to profit from infringement)

  4. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, May 7, 2009 at 8:08 p.m.

    Omigod, it's another pro-piracy article. Why are civil liberty types always so quick to defend thieves?

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