Privacy Advocates: Facebook Changes Are ’Superficial’

Privacy and consumer advocates have a response to the policy tweaks announced by Facebook yesterday: Nice try, Zuckerberg. But not nearly good enough.

Such was the collective disposition during a 30-minute teleconference attended by nine organizations and a mix of major general circulation and business publications on Thursday afternoon. The advocates characterized Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s newest privacy-related announcements as nothing more than strategically preemptive moves to distract the FTC and Congress from taking a hard line on data issues. They complained about too many default settings remaining opt-in instead of being changed to opt-out – particularly the Instant Personalization program.

The same critics did concede that the privacy control simplifications were a step in the right direction. But they say that Facebook’s real intent has little to do with privacy concerns and a lot to do with the monetization of user data. And they pointed to the similarities between what’s happened in the last month to the way the Beacon controversy unfolded as a material reason for such skepticism.

Here are a handful of their more interesting comments:

John Simpson, privacy advocate with Consumer Watchdog:

“I think this whole process shows a…mindset that Facebook follows and Google follows. And that’s that you push the envelope as far as you can. You grab whatever data you can. And then if there’s push-back, you then change back and do something else. It’s an operating mode of, ’Never ask permission – you can always ask for forgiveness.’ If they were sincere about privacy, the default mode for everything would be the minimal amount of sharing and if you wish to share more, you opt in to doing that. I don’t think we have any reason now to trust the company based on their past record.”

Jeff Chester, co-founder of the Center for Digital Democracy:

“It took this unprecedented cross-Atlantic pressure – policy pressure – to get Facebook to change. These were positive changes that were made under the duress. They are simpler controls, but much more is needed…What Facebook has done is consciously create an architecture to encourage the transmission of user data so that it can be mined for advertising purposes without the user understanding the process.”

Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of Privacy Journal:

“I was struck by the process of all of this. First of all, Mark Zuckerberg said in his comments yesterday that this was hurriedly put together…two weeks of caffeine and all-night sessions – very collegiate. But you wonder if that’s the proper atmosphere for developing a serious privacy policy. And then to compound that, he says he hopes they can now put privacy on the shelf and this will be the end of it… Most people know that to develop a privacy policy you have to keep track of new technology, and you have to update constantly. I was struck that a company that exploits and benefits so much from new technology seems to think that privacy ought to be stagnant.”

Chip Pitts, president of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee and a professor at Stanford Law School:

“We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that despite the procedural improvements made as a result of Facebook’s new approach to privacy, the substance does remain largely unchanged in terms of the default settings. Until the users’ control over their own information is truly fully realized – and that’s what is at issue here in an ongoing basis – there are still substantial questions about the deceptiveness to Facebook’s approach to these issues.”

Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse:

“Certainly, Facebook has taken a step in the right direction in terms of simplifying things. However, we do regard the changes as largely superficial… We are particularly troubled by the default settings and by the largely opt-out approach. We view much of what has been done as a preemptive strike against regulation by the Federal Trade Commission.”

Follow Christopher Heine on Twitter at @ChrisClickZ.

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