Facebook's quiet privacy shift prompts protests

A week-long consultation over a series of changes to Facebook's terms and conditions yielded tens of thousands of German responses, but very few in other languages
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Facebook is reviewing reactions to proposed changes to its privacy terms and conditions, after a flood of responses came in from German-speaking countries.

Facebook screen

Facebook is reviewing reactions to proposed changes to its privacy terms, after its posting attracted a flood of comments, mostly from German-speaking counties. Image: CNET UK

Members had a week to give their opinions on the changes, outlined in a revised 'Statement of Rights and Responsibilities' (PDF), and that consultation period closed on Thursday. One of the biggest changes in the new statement is that it removes all references to Facebook's 'Privacy Policy', replacing them with mentions of its 'Data Use Policy'. The changes also make it clearer that using a Facebook app means sharing information with that app, and that downloadable Facebook products may be updated.

However, only people who had 'Liked' the Facebook Site Governance page would have been automatically notified about the chance to comment when the draft changes were posted online. Little more than two million people have 'liked' that page, out of 845 million Facebook users. Nonetheless, Facebook's proposed policies make it clear that this page will be where the company makes any future policy changes.

Barely anyone apart from German speakers responded to the draft. According to ZDNet UK sister site ZDNet.com, the week yielded 36,878 comments in German but just 526 comments in English, 186 in Spanish and fewer than 100 for the other languages on offer.

While some of the feedback covered complaints with Facebook's features in general, many said they "reject" the changes.

If you enact this policy, I will delete my account.
– Elika Etemad

"I disagree strongly with the change that allows apps my friends use and to which I have not had the explicit opportunity to evaluate, to access all of my private data," said Elika Etemad on the comment page. "If you enact this policy, I will delete my account." 

Asked whether it was appropriate to notify Facebook users of serious policy changes via a page followed by less than a quarter of a percent of those users, a spokeswoman for the social-networking company noted that "two million is more people than read the Daily Mail every day".

With a good deal of public backing, German data protection authorities are famously strict in their application of the law when it comes to Facebook and Google. Meanwhile, the recent Irish data-protection audit of the company was prompted by a group of Austrian students.

Indeed, German Facebook users get a special section in the proposed changes, stating that they will have 30 days after notification of future changes before those changes come into effect. Everyone else only gets a minimum of seven days.

However, privacy czars from the states of Hamburg and Schleswig-Holstein said in a statement (in German) on Wednesday that the revised rules still do not comply with European data protection law, largely due to Facebook's tactic of assuming implied consent by everyone who continues to use the service after the changes come in.

The data protection officials also said that even 30 days' notice was not sufficient for evaluating policy changes.

Facebook hits back

The social-networking company hit back on Friday to suggestions that it is laying the ground for a shift in its approach to member data.

"Some reporters are mistaking a proposed update to our terms for changes to the way we collect or use data. As you know, our Data Use Policy governs how we collect and use data. We are not proposing any updates to that document at this time," Facebook said. 

"Instead, we are updating the commitments we make to users and they make to us by using our service... We proposed some mostly administrative and clarifying changes (eg 'no hateful' to 'no hate speech') to this document," it added.

The Facebook spokeswoman said the company has already changed the title of its privacy policy and the statement is just being updated to reflect that. "It's making the terms more consistent with the new name and making them more descriptive," she told ZDNet UK.

Over the next few days, Facebook will review the feedback and "decide if we need to make any changes or answer any questions before the document is official", the company said. It has promised to let members know about its next steps.

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