United States Senators, Facebook users, and consumer advocate groups are rallying against recent changes to Facebook’s privacy settings. Recently, four Senators asked the Federal Trade Commission to make privacy guidelines clearer for all social networking sites, while the consumer protection group, The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), filed a complaint with the regulatory agency alleging that Facebook engaged in unfair and deceptive trade practices, and violated consumer protection laws.

The complaint, supported by numerous consumer organizations, centers around recent changes to Facebook’s privacy policy that make formerly private information public. The complaint attacks Facebook’s recent decision to require certain personal information in user profiles to be either linked publicly or removed from the profile. Users who opt-out of linking will find key pieces of information, such as employment, education, and book and movie preferences missing from their profiles. Under former Facebook policies, users were able to list this information privately. Additionally, the users name, profile picture, gender, city, hometown, and friend list — all previously considered private information — are now publicly available. EPIC alleges that although users may choose under Facebook’s privacy settings to share this information only with their friends on the site, Facebook nevertheless shares this information with third-party websites. EPIC further alleges, and other critics agree, that the new privacy controls are designed to frustrate and confuse users into compromising their privacy.

The counterargument, of course, is that no one is required to use Facebook. Others argue that Facebook’s new policies are no different than policies that other websites use; people are willing to sacrifice privacy for the convenience of the Internet. Although these arguments are valid, Facebook’s situation is different than that of other websites. Facebook branded itself as a social networking site where privacy was paramount, leading some critics to compare the site’s eroding privacy controls to bait and switch advertising. The people who helped Facebook reach its popular status are the same people who are alienated and upset with the site’s new privacy settings. At the same time, however, people have come to rely on Facebook as a primary method of communication and are reluctant to leave the site. Unfortunately, it appears that our only options will be to accept lower privacy standards or to leave Facebook altogether.

Kate Kliebert

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