The Case for Staying With Facebook

If you've considered deleting your Facebook account within the last 30 days, you're far from alone. Consumer backlash to Facebook’s recent privacy-policy changes has grown so rapidly that Facebook called an all-hands meeting this week to discuss privacy issues.

Marc Rotenberg, however, doesn't want you to boycott Facebook. Rotenberg is the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a leading online privacy-advocacy group. Earlier this month, EPIC, along with a handful of other consumer groups, filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission against Facebook, prompted by Facebook's shifting privacy policies and users' loss of control of their information on the social-networking site.

EPIC's aim is to have the FTC establish privacy regulations that online social-networking sites must follow. Starting with Facebook (which EPIC considers the biggest privacy offender) and then moving on to other networks, EPIC wants the FTC to take action to help individuals regain their privacy on the social Web.

TAP recently talked to Rotenberg about EPIC's case against Facebook, the role of the FTC in protecting consumers, and the future of online privacy.

Can you tell us about the details of the complaint EPIC recently filed against Facebook with the FTC?

The complaint has over 150 numbered paragraphs, runs 38 pages, and includes a lot of legalese. But the basic claim is simple: Facebook pulled a "privacy bait and switch." They told users to sign up and provide personal information under one set of privacy policies, and then they changed the policies. It's like if someone offered you a new car, took your money, and then delivered a used car. We need the FTC to act in such situations to protect consumers and ensure fairness. Otherwise, markets spiral out of control.

How has the FTC responded to EPIC's complaint?

No response so far. In the past, they have said that EPIC's complaints [about Facebook] "raise issues of particular interest to the FTC."

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is still insisting that even with the recent changes to the platform, no new information is being shared with third parties that users didn't already share. What is your assessment of his claims? 

I remember when Mark said something similar about the changes last November. Then someone pointed out to him that his college photos, which he wanted only available for friends, were made available to everyone because of the recent changes in the privacy settings.

The CEO of Facebook had to reset his own privacy settings so he could keep his photos private. I think Mark Zuckerberg, like everyone else, understands the importance of privacy.

Is there anything users can do to take back their privacy? Is deleting your Facebook account worthwhile?

Users need to expect that companies will respect their privacy. They should demand this. Walking away doesn't help. The reason that EPIC filed the complaint with the FTC is because we think that this is about unfair and deceptive trade practices.

There is not much users can do when Facebook keeps changing its policies and the users' privacy settings. People shouldn't drop Facebook or boycott. The FTC should enforce fair and transparent business practices. That is an obvious role for government.

Do you believe the FTC cares about consumer privacy? Are they taking enough steps to address issues of consumer privacy online?

We've had real success with the FTC in the past. But something is wrong with this commission. It talks a lot about privacy, but it doesn't actually do anything.

Can you elaborate on this? What has this commission been doing so far in regards to online privacy?

They held three privacy round tables but have failed to take action on any of the big privacy concerns facing users -- cloud computing, Google Buzz, changes in Facebook privacy settings.

And the Chinese hack got Google to improve security for Gmail users a year after EPIC warned the FTC about the problem.

It's getting embarrassing. The Department of Defense figured out the problem cited in an EPIC privacy complaint to the FTC even though the commission ignored our concern.

In an ideal world, can you describe what you think the FTC's regulations on social-networking sites should look like?

There are a couple of ways to go. First, the FTC could simply enforce the privacy policies of Facebook. That's the free-market, private-contract approach. Or Congress could pass a comprehensive privacy law, regulating the collection and use of personal data by Facebook. I'd favor the second, but even the first could work. The problem now is that there is neither. No regulation and no enforcement of policies.

If the FTC does establish privacy regulations for social-networking sites, how can the FTC best enforce them?

Oversight, investigations, and penalties. Kids get into trouble when they do stuff they are not supposed to do. Why shouldn't Facebook?

Are users at fault for putting so much of our personal data online in the first place? To what degree did we get ourselves into this mess?

I don't think users are at fault. They should be able to rely on a privacy policy. They should expect that their privacy settings won't be changed after they are set. We are in this mess because the Federal Trade Commission is allowing companies to act badly.

This is all the more incredible when you think about the recent disasters we've had because of federal agencies that didn't take their mission seriously. Think about the financial meltdown because the [Securities and Exchange Commission] didn't do its job. Or the current scandal with the Minerals Management Service, which carries much of the blame for the oil-spill disaster.

Looks like we can add the FTC to the list.