Whatch’You Talkin’Bout Facebook?

Facebook Legal NewsWhile Facebook has made efforts, the social media giant isn’t exactly concerned with online privacy. Bottom line: advertising is the company’s cash cow — and effective advertising involves pinpointing consumers’ personal interests, and then offering up relevant ads. So how does one go about deciphering consumers’ desires? Why by keeping track of their online activity, of course. And in order to keep tabs on prospective buyers, online privacy laws must be slack enough to allow for customer identification and tracking. As such, every so often Internet companies tweak their privacy policies to make way for new marketing opportunities. Facebook recently made changes to their terms – and the changes have privacy stalwarts crying foul.

Facebook’s Online Privacy Track Record = Abysmal

Since going global, Mark Zuckerberg’s production hasn’t exactly earned a gold star for their online privacy efforts. Most notably, back in 2007, the social networking giant unleashed Beacon, a feature which displayed users’ online purchases in their timelines.

Facebook made a big mistake with Beacon – huge – by:

  1. Not alerting people of the feature; and
  2. Making Beacon opt-out default, causing it to “go live” unbeknownst to users;

Adding fuel to the fire, at the time, Facebook’s privacy settings were so confusing that folks couldn’t figure out how to turn Beacon off. To give you an idea of the calamity the program caused: Beacon foiled one guy’s engagement plans.

Long story short, a class action lawsuit ensued. In the end, the courts ordered that an overseer monitor Facebook’s privacy policy and its implementation.

Parents and Privacy Advocates Seeing Red Over Recent Facebook Privacy Policy Changes

For some time, the status quo prevailed, privacy wise, on Facebook. Then several weeks ago, Facebook announced an impending change of their policy. It caused a stir.

Most notably, the company changed a passage concerning minors’ use of the platform. In the new version, the language used assumed that people under the age of 14 had an in-depth pow-wow with their parents about the dangers and privacy concerns of Facebook, and then had gotten permission to join the platform.

Needless to say, the parent peanut gallery cried foul, as did online privacy advocates. Folks were fuming because it seemed as if Facebook was trying to skirt compliance with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act – and a host of state laws regarding minors’ use of social media and privacy.

Facebook Staff Swears They Were Just Trying To “Start A Conversation”

According to Facebook, though, “the [new] language was about getting a conversation started.”

Did the word “disingenuous” just pop into your head? Yeah, you not alone. If Facebook wanted to jumpstart a conversation about minors’ online privacy, the company could easily have:

  1. Orchestrated a conference and panel discussion;
  2. Set up a website which explored the issue;
  3. Put a link at the top of their GUI inviting everyone to join a forum to discuss the issue;
  4. Sent out a press release requesting feedback.

But instead, Facebook tried to slip the new language into their privacy policy with as little fanfare as possible.

Whatever conversation Facebook was trying to start never got off the ground because users were not having it. When the clamor reached fever pitch, Facebook finally backed down, claiming, “We were not seeking and would not have gained any additional rights as a result of this addition. We received feedback, though, that the language was confusing and so we removed the sentence.”

Mentioning “additional rights” is interesting in this context. No, Facebook would probably not have gained any additional rights by inserting an assumption into the privacy policy. But if it had stuck, the company would probably have been able to do a lot more with the data gathered about minors –thereby giving the company significant flexibility in its advertising initiatives.

If it had worked, it may have been the legal loophole maneuver of the year. Better luck next time, Palo Alto.

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