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Facebook and the Government: Can They Ever Login and Be Friends? (Full Story)
Comments () | Published June 6, 2011
This past year, the University of Michigan included Facebook in its American Customer Satisfaction Index for the first time, and although it found Facebook rated low--in the bottom 5 percent of all organizations surveyed, right down there with the IRS--privacy wasn't the only problem. It was also Facebook's ever-evolving interface that put people off.

Privacy advocates argue, however, that Facebook's users would be angrier if they could track how the company was using their personal data for marketing and advertising, "but that information isn't given to them," says the Center for Digital Democracy's Jeff Chester, a former investigative journalist. "Facebook is changing its privacy settings all the time. That makes it very hard for people to keep up."

Facebook has made two major revisions to its core "terms of service"--the never-read legalese that constitutes a binding agreement between Facebook and its users. In 2009, Facebook updated those terms to seemingly say that it owned everything its users put on the site and that it could do whatever it wanted with user information. The company backed off on that. But it updated the terms again last year, when it introduced new privacy controls. Earlier this year, Facebook allowed app developers access to some users' mobile-phone numbers and addresses but changed course on that, too, after users complained.

The current terms are available for users to read at any time. And users can personalize their privacy settings. So the question is: Whose responsibility is it to understand how Facebook is using personal data--the government's or Facebook users'?

Says Facebook's Sparapani: "We trust our users to make the right decisions for them regarding their data and their information. We are empowering our users to take control over their data."

Facebook's critics have lobbed plenty of accusations at the company, but they agree on one thing: The company has hired well here. Tim Sparapani is an example. At the ACLU, Sparapani collaborated with some of Facebook's biggest opponents in Washington, including Rotenberg's EPIC, the Center for Democracy & Technology, and the Center for Digital Democracy. And though he's now a nemesis, few have a bad word to say about him.

"I've known Tim for a very long time, and he's a very good guy," says Chris Calabrese, who replaced Sparapani as the ACLU's legislative counsel. "But we've obviously got larger issues going on. It's not about the personalities."

Sparapani, 37, doesn't disagree. Personal-privacy protection "is the world I come from," he says. "And I am really pleased that I have maintained close personal friendships and good Facebook friendships with a lot of these people. Because this is important stuff. We may disagree about the way to get there, but we do agree with the goal. The goal is to get more open and transparent and to give people more control over their information."

Facebook's terms of service require users to reveal some basic information about themselves. You can't opt out of that or of lots of other ways Facebook makes details about you and your friends available to anyone with an individual profile.

Next: "Instant personalization" raises eyebrows in Washington


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Posted at 11:00 AM/ET, 06/06/2011 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Articles