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Facebook Privacy

The FTC is bringing some changes to Facebook

Molly Wood Nov 14, 2011

The impending settlement between the FTC and Facebook has to do with how Facebook changes its privacy settings. Under the agreement, Facebook would need to get a user’s permission before using data in a way that’s different than how the user originally agreed to when the data was used. So if you set a certain status update to be seen by just your friends, Facebook can’t change privacy practices later and make that status public without your permission.

In fact, the concept of “permission” is going to be the most significant way that you might notice a difference in your Facebook experience.

“What it’s going to do is stop you from getting surprised as much,” says Ryan Calo of Stanford University’s Center for Internet and Society. “You’re not going to just turn on your social network one day and find out suddenly something you didn’t think was being shared is being shared. Rather you’re going to turn it on and very likely you’ll see a pop-up at the very beginning of your experience that tells you about changes and asks you to accept them.”

So you’ll encounter some extra warnings and have to participate more. It’s going to have an effect on the data you make public but not so much on what other people collect about you, says Calo. “It doesn’t necessarily do much for other questions about how much data does company get, under what circumstances can the government get my information but it does help with this big problem of people not realizing what they’re sharing. What it puts a brake on, I think, not just for Facebook, but other companies, is this idea that it’s okay to ask for forgiveness instead of permission.”

Chris Hoofnagle teaches law at UC Berkeley and thinks the deal that’s being established is not groundbreaking in what it lays out but that it’s very significant because of who it targets.  “I think what’s exceptional about this case is it concerns Facebook,” he says, “a website that has 800 million users. The proposition of law, however, is not exceptional. In a case known as Hooked on Phonics, the FTC has already said a website can’t make retroactive changes to privacy without consent. So that means before a website changes your settings they’re supposed to ask you affirmatively for permission to do so. That’s been settled law since 2003. What’s noticeable about this is it’s finally stuck to this behemoth website that’s very politically powerful.”

The agreement also calls for ongoing independent audits of Facebook’s privacy practices for the next 20 years. Calo thinks that it’s going to be seen as good news for users, the government, and even Facebook, “Having this requirement of independent audits that seems to be in play, having this requirement to proceed carefully with consumer might be a really good thing for Facebook, because it helps them put behind some of the doubts and clouds of problems around privacy they’ve had in past.”

Also on today’s program, the search is on for Gordon of Sesame Street. No, not the actor who has played Gordon for decades. We’re talking about the guy who played Gordon in unaired pilot for the show. Try as they might, the folks at Sesame Workshop have been unable to figure out who Proto-Gordon was. They need your help.

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