Commentary

Can Lobbyists Fix Facebook's Privacy Mess?

Facebook's privacy problems appear to be spurring the company to take on more lobbyists.

This morning, the Financial Times reported that Facebook enlisted former Federal Trade Commission chief Tim Muris to make the company's case to regulators. A Facebook spokesman says that Muris "has not joined" the company, but that only means that the former FTC head isn't among Mark Zuckerberg's salaried employees. Indeed, the wording of the official denial leaves open the possibility that Muris is helping Facebook to address regulators' concerns.

Of course, there's an easy answer for Facebook -- one that wouldn't require new lobbyists: Stop violating users' privacy. The first, and most critical, step for Facebook should be to simply change the new instant personalization feature -- which automatically shares users' names, photos, friends and other data with Yelp, Pandora and Microsoft Docs -- to opt-in.

While this graphic, created by developer Matt McKeon, shows a host of Facebook privacy rollbacks over the years, none are as offensive as instant personalization. With instant personalization, Facebook has single-handedly destroyed 400 million people's ability to surf the Web anonymously, without specifically opting out.

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Whether regulators will put a stop to Facebook's privacy violations remains unknown. Even though the company apparently is concerned enough to enlist a heavy hitter like Muris, the advocacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center appears equally concerned that the authorities aren't moving fast enough.

That group, which last week filed a new FTC complaint about Facebook, also sent a letter to key lawmakers lamenting that the commission "appears reluctant" to take steps to protect U.S. consumers. EPIC noted in its letter that an earlier complaint it filed about Facebook hasn't yet been addressed by the FTC.

Of course, even if government regulators aren't moving as fast as EPIC would like, the FTC might well decide to take action.

Consider, the two most recent commissioners were only confirmed in March -- months after EPIC's first complaint was filed. Those new members likely want some time to come up to speed on all of the various issues confronting the FTC. Additionally, the FTC needs to digest its recent privacy roundtables, which addressed privacy in social networks.

What's more, this current FTC has given every indication that it cares deeply about online privacy. Consumer protection head David Vladeck has taken pro-privacy positions, as has newly appointed commissioner Julie Brill.

Given the current FTC's makeup, it's understandable that Facebook might think it needs a heavy-hitter like Muris on board. But it doesn't seem likely that the company will be able to avoid government action -- or litigation by consumers -- without first revising instant personalization.

1 comment about "Can Lobbyists Fix Facebook's Privacy Mess?".
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  1. Robert Zager from iconix, inc., May 11, 2010 at 11:37 a.m.

    Facebook's approach to privacy (ignore it) will eventually result in big problems in the EU. The Feb 2010 conviction of Google execs should stand as a reminder that the world is not governed by the law of the USA.

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