What the Facebook settlement will probably mean for you

Facebook privacy1Facebook changed its privacy policy in 2009 to make users’ profiles more public by default. The changes came under pretty severe criticism at the time and prompted a complaint to the US Federal Trade Commission, the essence of which was the following:

The basic premise of the complaint is that most users either don’t understand the changes they are being prompted to make, or that the changes are so complex that even experienced users are confused by them. (These arguments are supported by numerous quotes from tech gurus around the Web discussing their frustration and confusion with the new settings.) As a result, EPIC believes users are being misled by Facebook into exposing more than they had ever intended. “Absent injunctive relief by the Commission, Facebook is likely to continue its unfair and deceptive business practices and harm the public interest,” wrote EPIC.

It seems that complaint is in the process of being resolved. The Wall Street Journal has reported (the full article may only be available to Wall Street Journal subscribers) that Facebook and the FTC are close to a settlement of the complaint. The settlement will likely require that Facebook obtain users’ explicit consent before making retroactive changes to their privacy settings. This means that Facebook can’t, for example, make “Friends only” posts public without users’ explicit consent. While it sounds somewhat outrageous that Facebook would do this, this is pretty much what Facebook did in 2009 and earlier when it changed its privacy policies.

Looking ahead, Facebook will be required to respect your privacy choices and not make unilateral changes to what you are sharing with whom. That said, the settlement will still allow Facebook to introduce new products and services going forward which may require particular sharing settings, and obtain your consent to those changes in some way. That may simply take the form of a consent in future versions of Facebook’s privacy policy. This settlement’s focus will remain on retroactive changes to your privacy settings, it won’t determine how content may be shared going forward. This remains users’ responsibility. Users simply must familiarize themselves with Facebook’s privacy controls and make informed choices about what they share and with whom. A good starting point is this overview of Facebook’s Data Use Policy.

Another interesting feature of the settlement is that Facebook may find itself subject to an FTC 20 year privacy review process. This is similar to one of the conditions of Google’s Buzz settlement with the FTC earlier this year.