Facebook will agree to seek users' express consent before making any changes that significantly affect their privacy in order to settle a complaint by the Federal Trade Commission, The Wall Street Journalreports. The deal is still awaiting approval of all Commissioners, according to the Journal.
The tentative settlement stems from Facebook's decision in December of 2009 to reclassify a host of information about users as “public” -- including people's names, photos, friend lists and pages they are “fans” of. Facebook's move two years ago drew immediate criticism from digital rights advocates like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who pointed out that some users want more power over who gets to see that kind of data.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center and nine other groups -- including the American Library Association, Center for Digital Democracy and Consumer Federation of America -- promptly filed a complaint with the FTC arguing that Facebook's revisions constituted an unfair and deceptive business practice.
Only a few weeks after Facebook made its changes, the ACLU's Chris Conley, technology and civil liberties fellow, reported on the real-world consequences of the new settings. Speaking at an FTC roundtable, Conley said that two closeted, gay students complained to his organization that they were outed by Facebook's new privacy settings. The students had signed up as fans of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) page on Facebook before the company changed its settings. After the revision, however, Facebook classified all pages people were fans of as "publicly available information" and published that information on the students' profile pages.
In the last two years, Facebook revised its privacy controls to give users more say over who can access their data. But the company hadn't previously promised to seek opt-in consent to future changes that affect privacy. Assuming the Journal's report is accurate, Facebook will no longer be able to blindside users by distributing photos, posts or other information more widely than people anticipated when they posted the material.