Facebook has reached a settlement with the FTC that may be ratified in the next few weeks. The settlement comes in response to concerns over Facebook’s privacy controls, and would mandate both new practices and regular privacy audits.
Facebook’s Privacy Pitfalls
When it comes to complaints about Facebook, privacy is often at the top of the bill. This has been especially true since December of 2009, when Facebook released basic user information – including the name, profile picture, location, and gender of users – to the public without user consent. In response to this choice, concerned Facebook users teamed with the Electronic Privacy Information Center to file a complaint with the FTC.
While Facebook has made several revisions to its privacy policies, those changes alone are insufficient. In the terms of the currently proposed settlement, Facebook would have to get user permission before expanding the visibility of any user-posted content – including images, user information, and posts. Facebook would also have to submit to privacy audits from a third party for the next 20 years.
While Facebook has been in discussions with the FTC for quite some time, Facebook had been attempting to minimize the requirements. A party familiar with the matter specifically noted that Facebook was pushing for just 5 years of audits as opposed to 20. Facebook has since given in. As noted by the Wall Street Journal, one powerful incentive for compromise is the initial public offering anticipated next year; Facebook may be attempting to clear the pending FTC issue so it doesn't hang over that IPO.
The proposed settlement will be voted on in the upcoming weeks. While it's likely (given historical precedents) that it will simply be ratified, it's possible that the settlement will be returned for revision.
The FTC Cracks Down on Digital Privacy
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's founder, commented on the site's privacy. "It's getting more and more important to be increasingly clear and give people those controls," he said. "I don't think we're at the end."
It's certainly true that privacy is becoming a higher priority for digital companies, at least in part thanks to the FTC cracking down on digital privacy. Social networks seem to be the major sites of concern. Google and Twitter both settled with the FTC for complaints involving social features; Google admitted to its privacy mistakes with Buzz and submitted to 20 years of audits, and Twitter acknowledged security lapses that made profiles more vulnerable and submitted to 10 years of audits.
The call for Internet-era privacy has extended beyond the FTC as well. The Obama administration called for a "Privacy Bill of Rights," and over a dozen privacy-related bills were introduced in congress in just the first 10 months of 2011.