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New Facebook information sharing features cause privacy concerns

Privacy watchdogs are urging the Federal Trade Commission to look into the social networking service's new features that they say push Facebook users to share more than they may feel comfortable sharing.

September 27, 2011|By Jessica Guynn, Los Angeles Times
  • Facebook unveiled services last week that make it easier for its 800 million users to share more information about themselves and their lives online. Above, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks Thursday at its F8 developers conference in San Francisco.
Facebook unveiled services last week that make it easier for its 800 million… (David Paul Morris, Bloomberg )

Reporting from San Francisco — Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said its new features create "frictionless sharing."

But they are causing friction with some users and consumer groups.

Facebook unveiled last week services that make it easier for its 800 million users to share more information about themselves and their lives online. The social networking service showed off a dramatic redesign of users' profiles, a timeline that charts in chronological order all the information users have shared in the past. Facebook also said that third-party applications would — with users' consent — automatically share every action users take, such as the songs they listen to or the videos they watch.

Privacy watchdogs are urging the Federal Trade Commission to look into the new features that they say push users to share more than they may feel comfortable sharing.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the watchdog group Electronic Privacy Information Center, which has criticized Facebook in the past, said he was sending a letter to the FTC pressing his organization's concerns, which he says the agency has so far failed to address.

"It's getting really difficult to evaluate the changes that Facebook makes, and I say that as a privacy professional. I can't imagine what the typical user goes through," Rotenberg said. "Users might opt in to what Facebook is planning to do, but Facebook never gives users that option. It just marches forward and users have to go along."

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment. An agency spokeswoman declined to say if the FTC is investigating Facebook. The FTC does not discuss investigations unless the subject of an inquiry discloses the investigation, she said.

Privacy watchdogs aren't the only ones who say Facebook is stripping away its users' privacy. Writer Ben Barr of technology blog Mashable in a blog post said, "We're at the point of no return."

"Facebook's passive sharing will change how we live our lives. More and more, the things we do in real life will end up as Facebook posts," Parr wrote. "And while we may be consoled by the fact that most of this stuff is being posted just to our friends, it only takes one friend to share that information with his or her friends to start a viral chain."

Facebook says it gives users the ability to control the privacy of their personal information. And it has taken recent steps to give users even greater control.

But it continues to be dogged by privacy concerns as it taps users' information to better target advertising. Advertising sales make up most of the income for Facebook, which is preparing for a highly anticipated initial public offering next year.

With Internet companies gathering huge volumes of personal information, lawmakers and regulators in the U.S. and Europe have stepped up scrutiny.

In March, Google settled with the FTC, which had accused the Internet search giant of engaging in deceptive practices with the rollout of the social networking service called Buzz. Google agreed to put in place a privacy program and to be audited by a third party every other year. Over the summer Google launched another social networking service, Google+, which is seen as a credible competitor to Facebook.

Spotify and other third-party applications are already being made available to Facebook users. The redesign of users' profiles will roll out in coming weeks.

As consumers tried to digest the latest Facebook changes, another concern emerged: Blogger Nik Cubrilovic accused Facebook of using cookies to track users when they are logged off from the service.

Facebook engineer Gregg Stefancik denied that the company tracked users in a comment on Cubrilovic's blog post. Stefancik said that Facebook alters — but does not delete — cookies when users log out. But he says Facebook does that as a safety measure and does not use the cookies to track users or sell their personal information.

In a statement, Facebook said the logged-out cookies are used to identify spammers and phishers and detect when an unauthorized person is trying to access a user's account, among other things.

Tim Whitlock, chief technology officer and co-founder of Brandfeed, a company that helps promote brands, said users should think through the consequences of sharing personal information on Facebook.

"Most people understand that sites like Facebook are free to use for a reason. It's not because Mark Zuckerberg loves you, it's because Facebook and its peers make money from your data and from your eyeballs," Whitlock wrote. "We need to start thinking beyond what our data is currently used for … and wonder what else the information we hand over today might be used for tomorrow."

jessica.guynn@latimes.com

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