Making A Federal Case out of Facebook’s Customer Relations

by on December 18, 2009 · 7 comments

We’ve all heard someone use the phrase “making a federal case out of” something. Often it’s used when people overreact–as in stop making a federal case out of this! And that’s the  reaction we should have to the complaint filed by EPIC, Center for Digital Democracy, and others with the FTC. Because they have literally made a federal consumer protection case out of what should be a a customer relations issue between Facebook and its users.

Facebook’s users are quick and vocal about Facebook’s privacy practices. And Facebook has been quick to respond. The Facebook blog on privacy highlights all its recent undertakings to respond to privacy concerns, including the Facebook Site Governance page, the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, an open letter and other blog posts from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. There’s even Facebook Principles that highlight the site’s mission. How many other companies have been so transparent and responsive?

Indeed, you could say that Facebook has been the gold standard of responding to consumers. In this most recent change to privacy settings, users were prompted to revisit their privacy settings. Facebook made some recommended changes based on where it sees its service going. Users (like me) could change these if they wanted.

And change is what the Internet and new web services are all about. Forcing Facebook or any other online site to perpetually maintain original settings prevents new and innovative business models and services (just ask Microsoft about how backward compatibility makes Windows innovation so difficult). Web 2.0 services like Facebook have to experiment with the ways that users publish and share information. If these sites go too far, their customers will leave–which is the best check on privacy compared to any law or regulation.

So that’s why I’m disappointed why these privacy groups are complaining to the FTC. There’s a high bar of specificity for FTC action, so it would have been far better to petition the Facebook community and let them unleash whatever fury they have. But my hunch is that these complaining groups don’t think that the FTC will actually do anything here. After all, making a federal case of actions by high visibility companies makes for a good publicity opportunity even if there’s no sound legal case.

Unfortunately–now that it’s a federal case–customer relations is now confused with consumer protection.

  • http://www.timothyblee.com/ Tim Lee

    Braden,

    Facebook disclosed information that it had previously indicated would be private, including my friends and my website likes. They did this without asking my permission and without giving me the option to opt out of having my information disclosed. The fact that Facebook has published a lot of statements, press releases, open letters, and the like is totally irrelevant if Facebook hasn't actually kept the promises they've made in those documents.

    Unless I'm misunderstanding you, you seem to be arguing that it's wrong for the legal system to require Facebook to keep its promises because this would mean forcing Facebook to “perpetually maintain original settings.” But isn't “maintaining original settings” a fundamental purpose of contract and consumer fraud laws?

  • dmarti

    Facebook is a private company, not a membership organization. If you want an online hangout that you have some say over, it would probably work better to find an organization you like, and are either a member of or are willing to join, and improve the web site than to try to find a company whose web site you like and try to make it act like a membership organization.

    If you catch me using Facebook for anything other than (1) spamming it with links to my own web site or (2) chatting with a person who doesn't have IRC or IM installed, with no expectation of privacy, you have my irrevocable permission to give me a dope slap.

  • bradencox

    Weren't all Facebook users prompted to review the changes? And users could change the settings at that time (back to original) too? I know I was prompted to review before I could use Facebook again. I saw this process as being highly transparent — there's no smoke and mirrors here.

  • http://www.timothyblee.com/ Tim Lee

    AFAIK, Facebook made several pieces of information, including profile picture, friends, and websites “likes,” mandatorily available. I saw the same screen you did, and I don't remember any mention of this change, although it's possible it was in the fine print somewhere.

    In any event, “smoke and mirrors” is exactly what happened here. The point of these changes was the dramatically increase the amount of information users disclosed, yet all of the accompanying marketing materials portrayed it as a move toward giving users more control over their personal information. Reasonable people can disagree over whether the FTC should get involved but I think it was pretty clearly sleazy.

  • bradencox

    Weren't all Facebook users prompted to review the changes? And users could change the settings at that time (back to original) too? I know I was prompted to review before I could use Facebook again. I saw this process as being highly transparent — there's no smoke and mirrors here.

  • http://www.timothyblee.com/ Tim Lee

    AFAIK, Facebook made several pieces of information, including profile picture, friends, and websites “likes,” mandatorily available. I saw the same screen you did, and I don't remember any mention of this change, although it's possible it was in the fine print somewhere.

    In any event, “smoke and mirrors” is exactly what happened here. The point of these changes was the dramatically increase the amount of information users disclosed, yet all of the accompanying marketing materials portrayed it as a move toward giving users more control over their personal information. Reasonable people can disagree over whether the FTC should get involved but I think it was pretty clearly sleazy.

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