After Complaints, Facebook Convenes Privacy Meeting

Facebook to hold internal privacy meeting after complaints, tech blog reports.

May 13, 2010, 10:09 AM

May 13, 2010— -- Facing complaints from users, federal lawmakers and privacy advocates, Facebook has called a general meeting for employees today at 4 p.m. PT to discuss the social network's privacy strategy, according to the social media blog

Since announcing a round of new features and changes to its privacy policy in mid-April, Facebook has defended itself against mounting criticism, saying that its changes are meant to make the Web more social and give users more control.

But some believe that the meeting today signals a possible change in the company's approach to privacy.

While it's unknown what's on the meeting agenda, Nick O'Neill, founder and editor of, said he thinks the social network will need to announce a change to its privacy policy to regain users' trust and quiet the media.

"I would imagine them to make at least some sort of change," he said. "There's just so much controversy surrounding it. They could one make one small step back and change the Instant Personalization [service] and a large percentage of the press would be satisfied with that, I think."

One of its more contentious features, Instant Personalization lets Facebook partner sites automatically access a user's profile information and friend list. Much debate has centered on Facebook's decision to opt all users into the program without their permission.

O'Neill said one of the easiest changes for Facebook to make is to pull back on the entire feature or roll it back so that it's "opt-in," as many privacy advocates have urged.

In a statement, a Facebook spokesman said, "We have an open culture and it should come as no surprise that we're providing a forum for employees to ask questions on a topic that has received a lot of outside interest."

As growing numbers of frustrated users join protest groups on Facebook, some of them say they hope this meeting means the company is actually listening.

"There has been such a strong backlash, and I think the fact that they are holding the meeting at all is a good sign," Charlotte Crockett, a 29-year-old Facebook user from the Netherlands, told in an e-mail. "It appears they are concerned about the reaction."

Along with more than 94,000 people, she joined a group called "Facebook, Respect My Privacy!" which was created by a organizer.

"I think it is very wrong for Facebook to share any kind of data with third parties without users' express consent -- previously, applications were also given access, but you had to click 'allow' for that to happen," she said about Facebook's "Instant Personalization" feature, adding that if she didn't follow tech blogs she probably wouldn't have been aware of the feature or how to opt out.

Even though she thinks she has a fairly good handle on the privacy settings, she said she finds them confusing.

"I'm concerned for people who aren't aware of how much they are sharing. Even quite a few of my friends my own age know very little about it, let alone, for instance, my parents!" she said. "You can imagine situations where that might even put users or their contacts (if they don't realize their full friend list is public for instance) in danger. I'm thinking of political activists in countries with repressive regimes, gay people in countries where homosexuality is illegal, etc."

She said she hopes that Facebook makes the default settings for most features private, switches the Instant Personalization service to opt-in, gives users more choice about how to share their interests, simplifies the privacy settings and commits to never publicizing information that a user has established as private.

Facebook Changes Meant to Make Web More Personalized, Social

At its developer conference a few weeks ago, Facebook unveiled several changes intended to make the Web more social and personalized by expanding Facebook's presence to other sites.

On thousands of sites, including, a "social plug-in" now lets users "like" content and see what their Facebook friends have liked, directly from those sites.

On three sites piloting an "instant personalization" feature, a user's profile information and friend list are automatically read by the site and used to shape the user's experience. On music site Pandora, for example, you can see what your Facebook friends like to listen to. On Yelp, you can see which restaurants they've reviewed.

But over the past few weeks, some of those data-sharing changes have drawn criticism from Facebook users, privacy advocates and federal regulators, who say Facebook needs to give its more than 400 million members more control over the personal information they disclose on the site.

"With great power comes great responsibility and sites like Facebook have great responsibility," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said at a news conference a week after Facebook's announcements. "In my view, it ought to be the user who determines who gets what information, not Facebook."

Joined by three other Democratic senators, Schumer sent a letter to Facebook, urging it to revisit the new policy and make it easier for users to control and protect their privacy.

One of their top concerns was Facebook's "opt-in" policy, which means that personal information is automatically shared with some partner Web sites unless the user goes through the process of disabling this feature.

In addition to sending a letter to Facebook, Schumer asked the Federal Trade Commission to create guidelines for Facebook and other social networks to follow.

In a letter responding to the senator, Facebook said it takes privacy very seriously and that its new products give users "unprecedented control over what information they share, when they share it and with whom."

At the time, Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes said in an e-mail to ABC News, "We appreciate the concern raised by Sen. Schumer and expect that further dialogue with interested members of Congress about the user controls that accompany the tools announced by Facebook last week will alleviate any concerns they may have."

But privacy advocates have pointed out that this is not the first time Facebook changes have triggered their concerns. In 2007, when Facebook unveiled Beacon, which tracked user behavior on other sites and shared the information on Facebook, user dissatisfaction was so strong that Facebook ultimately backpedaled and CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized.

In 2009, the social network announced another set of privacy changes, which again sparked complaints from privacy advocates and Facebook users.

"It shouldn't be a full-time job adjusting your privacy settings on Facebook," said Kurt Opsahl, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "It would be nice to see Facebook not only change to an opt-in model where people have control over who gets what information but makes some real promise that that should continue to be the case."

In a recent online Q&A with readers of the New York Times, Facebook vice president of privacy Elliot Schrage said the company hadn't done enough to educate users about the changes to its products.

"It's clear that despite our efforts, we are not doing a good enough job communicating the changes that we're making. Even worse, our extensive efforts to provide users greater control over what and how they share appear to be too confusing for some of our more than 400 million users. That's not acceptable or sustainable. But it's certainly fixable. You're pointing out things we need to fix," he said. "We will soon ramp up our efforts to provide better guidance to those confused about how to control sharing and maintain privacy."

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