Facebook: Timeline has nothing to do with privacy

Facebook has released a statement countering claims from a privacy organization that the new Timeline profile violates the social networking giant's settlement with the FTC.
Written by Emil Protalinski, Contributor

Update: EPIC has shared more information. EPIC vs Facebook: Privacy through obscurity.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) is unhappy with the way Facebook launched its new Timeline profile. Last month, the privacy organization complained Facebook went too far because it started rolling out the redesign without asking users first. EPIC then followed up with a four-page letter (PDF) to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) asking it to investigate the new feature to insure that it meets with the terms of a November 2011 FTC-Facebook settlement. Facebook denies these claims, saying that the Timeline launch has nothing to do with its users' privacy.

In the letter, EPIC asks the FTC to investigate privacy changes Facebook made to its site. Other groups including the American Library Association, the Center for Digital Democracy, Patient Privacy Rights, and the U.S. Bill of Rights Foundation, also signed the complaint. Here's the crux of the letter:

Facebook is changing the privacy settings of its users in a way that gives the company far greater ability to disclose their personal information than in the past. With Timeline, Facebook has once again taken control over the user’s data from the user and now made information that was essentially archived and inaccessible widely available with the consent of the user.

When I first wrote about EPIC's stance last month, here was my initial reaction:

EPIC argues that Facebook has broken its promise with the Timeline launch. Timeline does not change anything about privacy settings: it simply lets Facebook users more easily show (or completely hide) content they previously posted to the social network. From my understanding, Timeline has nothing to do with privacy settings. I may be wrong, however, so I have contacted Facebook and will update this story if I hear back.

Facebook never got back to me, until today. That's because news about the letter to the FTC only broke a few hours ago. In any case, the company confirmed my suspicions.

"As we explained when we announced timeline in September, and we reiterated last month when it became available worldwide, timeline doesn't change the privacy of any content," a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. "Everything is accessible to the same people who could or likely had seen it already in their News Feed sometime in the past. In addition, timeline offers a number of new, simpler, and more effective ways for people to control their information, including activity log, the most comprehensive control tool we've ever developed. We think these innovations are things privacy advocates should be applauding."

Four months ago at the company's 2011 f8 developer conference, Facebook revealed its new Timeline profile. On December 15, 2011, Timeline started to roll out globally, both on desktop and mobile.

Facebook gave users seven days to add or remove anything they wanted from their Timeline before it went live. If the user did not make any changes, however, content they may not want visible (which was previously buried in the past) could be accessed much more easily, since Timeline does not discriminate based on date. Timeline also automatically makes the following public: every public Facebook Event you responded to, the date you joined Facebook, and the dates you accessed certain Facebook apps.

EPIC described Facebook's launch by saying the social networking giant is posting "archived user information" so as to make "old posts available under Facebook's current downgraded privacy settings" all "without user consent." Furthermore, the group noted "users have just a week to clean up their history before Timeline goes live."

EPIC said Timeline was a "surprising announcement" given that two month ago Facebook settled with the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over default privacy settings made in December 2009 and Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg followed up with a commitment to privacy. EPIC was the privacy group that spearheaded the original complaint filed against Facebook at the FTC.

When the settlement was announced, the FTC said consumers must be given clear and prominent notice in advance, if such privacy changes are to occur again. Facebook must obtain consumers' express consent before their information is shared beyond the privacy settings they have established.

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