June 1, 2010 | By Kevin Bankston

Facebook Privacy Changes Inspire Praise, Optimism, and Skepticism

As soon as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the company's latest privacy changes last Wednesday, EFF published its immediate reaction and posted a simple video tutorial. EFF also opined about the changes at AOL News, in the New York Times, on the radio with NPR's All Things Considered, and on television with PBS' Newshour.

Today, we're doing a round-up of reactions to the Facebook news, ranging from the purely positive to the downright angry. Taken together, the reaction seems to be skeptical: the changes are good, but not good enough.

The skepticism began even before Wednesday, in response to a Monday Washington Post column from Zuckerberg that amounted to "a de facto Facebook press release." As The Atlantic Wire's round-up of reactions summed it up: "Tech Bloggers Frown at Facebook Founder's Privacy Column." A scathing opinion piece in Newsweek perhaps best exemplified how much trust Facebook has lost in recent months, describing a little dance that could be described as "The Facebook Shuffle":

If you really expect this company to suddenly become trustworthy, you’ve lost your mind. Over the past five years Facebook has repeatedly changed its privacy policy, always in one direction, and every time this happens, the same movie plays out. People complain. Facebook stonewalls, then spins, then pretends to be contrite, then finally walks things back—but only a little.

The Onion expressed its own skepticism with characteristic humor: "Entire Facebook Staff Laughs as Man Tightens Privacy Settings" exclaimed a Wednesday morning headline, just as Facebook launched what was described by Business Insider as a "Huge PR Blitz to Sell Privacy Changes" (collecting a variety of Facebook's press materials).

The most positive reactions to Facebook's announcement were helpfully provided by Facebook itself in its press release, which collected a bunch of pre-prepared quotes from non-profit consumer and privacy groups that were pleased by the changes. TRUSTe's quote was perhaps the most enthusiastic endorsement of the changes. Notably, TRUSTe is owned by Accel Partners, which is also a major investor in Facebook and appoints members to both companies' boards, a relationship that is the subject of of a recently filed complaint to the FTC.

Our friends at the Center for Democracy and Technology also appeared in Facebook's press release with the only quote to include a note of caution: "[T]hese changes are the building blocks to giving people what they want and deserve," but "more work still needs to be done..." CDT's full statement was even more cautious: "It has been a long hard slog, but we are cautiously optimistic that this ship has been righted and is beginning to make the necessary course correction to put users and their privacy rights back at the helm."

Meanwhile, our friends at the ACLU put out their own excellent analysis of the changes, concluding that "[a]lthough there are further changes users want and need, today’s changes are a significant and promising step in the right direction." The ACLU was even more positive in the San Jose Mercury News' story: "Facebook is finally friending privacy again," said Nicole Ozer of the Northern California ACLU.

However, a large contingent of privacy and consumer groups led by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, who had previously filed a wide-ranging FTC complaint about Facebook's privacy practices, concluded in a Thursday press conference that the changes were too little, too late. CNET reported how "Privacy Groups Assail Facebook Changes" while TechNewsWorld's headline summed up the groups' conclusion: "Privacy Groups: Facebook Can't Be Trusted."

The tech blogging community also wasn't reassured by Facebook's new direction, based on MediaPost's round-up of commentary, "Still Unhappy Facebook Campers Out There". Other bloggers focused less on the changes and instead on Mark Zuckerberg's presentation introducing the changes, with ReadWriteWeb dissecting "The Half-Truths of Mark Zuckerberg" and data portability advocate Chris Saad arguing that "Facebook's Data Portability Claims Are False." Finally, with its usual mix of insight and snark, Valleywag explained "Facebook's New Privacy Controls: The Good and the Shameful," with a special focus on the "shameful."

The final sign that Facebook's privacy woes were far from an end came on Friday, when Chairman Conyers of the House Judiciary Committee sent a letter of probing questions to Facebook (and to Google); such letters are often a prelude to a Congressional hearing.

So, it looks like the battle over Facebook's privacy practices hasn't ended, but has only just begun, the latest controversy serving as a "wake-up call" to social network users and policymakers. As our friends at CDT pointed out, "it has taken a full-throated revolt by Facebook’s users to put privacy back on the agenda of social networking giants." Jeff Chester put it even more bluntly in the Center for Digital Democracy's statement: "Facebook made some positive changes today, but only because of political pressure from policymakers and privacy advocates on both sides of the Atlantic."

With your help, we hope to keep that pressure on to ensure that Facebook's latest pro-privacy changes are not the last.


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