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Will Facebook get serious about online privacy?

In this photo illustration the social networking site Facebook is displayed on a laptop screen on March 25, 2009 in London, England.

Kai Ryssdal: We can debate all day long whether there's any such thing as real online privacy in this digital day and age, but we do like to believe there is. Which is why we tend to get upset with companies that take that belief for granted.

Facebook has settled charges it violated users' personal privacy by sharing their information with clients and others without their consent.

Marketplace's Steve Henn has the details. Hey Steve.

Steve Henn: Hey.

Ryssdal: So Facebook, privacy -- big, long, complicated topic. What's this specific case about?

Henn: Facebook got in trouble for deceiving consumers, according to the FTC. Basically telling them they can keep their information on Facebook private and then repeatedly allowing it to be shared or made public.

Ryan Calo's the director of privacy at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society.

Ryan Calo: The main obligation you have in online privacy is that you have to give notice of your practices, and you have to adhere to that notice.

So basically, Facebook didn't keep its promise.

Ryssdal: Give me some examples, like what?

Henn: You might remember back in 2009, it made personal information like friends lists public, and it didn't warn consumers those changes were coming. You know, it's shared personal data with third-party app vendors, even when they didn't need that data to make their apps work. Facebook said it would verify the security on apps when it didn't. It promised it wouldn't share some information with advertisers and it did. And Facebook also failed to completely delete accounts after promising users it would, so you could delete your account and videos or photos you had posted on it might be available to others for months afterward.

Ryssdal: So what are the terms of the deal? What's the punishment, I guess, if you will?

Henn: Basically, Facebook is promising not to do it again. You know, it really, really means it this time. It's not paying a fine, but it is agreeing to allow independent auditors to come in and audit its privacy policies every six months for the next 20 years. Basically, when it makes a promise about how it's going to use your data now, there's going to be someone else coming in to make sure that they're actually living up to it. They're also promising to affirmatively get users' permission before they change their privacy policies again. So if they want to change how your data's shared, they actually have to ask you first and you have to say yes.

Ryssdal: Yeah, are they going to make it easier, though? Because if you want to go into Facebook and change your privacy stuff, it takes you three hours! It's horrible.

Henn: There are no details in the agreement about that. So how that process works is going to be up to Facebook, but if they change the rules of the game, they have to ask you and you actually have to click a button that says yes.

Ryssdal: Talk to me for a second about Google and about Twitter and other social media sites or wannabe social media sites that have a lot of our data -- how does this apply, if at all?

Henn: Well, you know, the FTC's already negotiated similar agreements with Google and Twitter. And the FTC says this is just more evidence that it takes protecting consumers' online privacy really seriously. And I think for large companies, the message is pretty clear: If you make a promise about how you're going to use consumers' data, you have to live by it; you can't change the rules mid-stream and say you're going to do one thing with information about one of your customers and then do another.

Ryssdal: Here's the thing though: Mark Zuckerberg -- nice guy though he may be -- he and his company have promised many, many times in the past that they're not going to do this again. And yet they always do something to privacy settings that makes it turn out bad for the consumer. How do we know they're going to keep their word?

Henn: I think it really comes down to the independent auditors, the fact that they're signing this agreement; if they don't live up to the agreement, there will be fines. There'll likely be class-action lawsuits because of this and any case, and certainly would be if they went down this road again.

Ryssdal: Do you trust Facebook?

Henn: Maybe.

Ryssdal: Steve Henn in Silicon Valley. Thanks Steve.

Henn: Sure thing.

About the author

Steve Henn was Marketplace’s technology and innovation reporter for the entire portfolio of Marketplace programs until December 2011.

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