EU warns Facebook its privacy changes are 'unacceptable'

An assembled group of telecommunications ministers from the European Union's member states, called the Article 29 Working Party, has warned Facebook that changes it recently made to its privacy policy to enable "Instant Personalization" -- also known as "Like" -- may be in violation of what they thought was an agreement made in November 2009.

That warning stops short of directly accusing Facebook of violating laws, though it leaves the door open for such a decision in the future.
According to a statement released yesterday from Brussels (the text of their letter has yet to be released), the ministers did imply that Facebook's public presence at a meeting entitled "Safer Networking Principles for the EU," where its representatives signed a pledge, appears to contradict the changes it made to privacy policy just days later.

"The Article 29 Working Party...told Facebook in a letter today that it is unacceptable that the company fundamentally changed the default settings on its social-networking platform to the detriment of a user," the statement reads. "Facebook made the change only days after the company and other social networking sites providers participated at a hearing during the Article 29 Working Party's plenary meeting in November 2009."

That meeting received very little, if any, press coverage; however, one of its purposes was apparently to take down names. The WP says it also sent letters to 19 other attendees of that meeting to express concern. No other services' names were mentioned this time, however, just Facebook's.

"Providers of social networking sites should be aware that it would be a breach of data protection law if they use personal data of other individuals contained in a user profile for commercial purposes if these other individuals have not given their free and unambiguous consent," yesterday's statement from Article 29 reads.

That warning may have been taken seriously by Facebook executives. The independent blog All Facebook, which reports only on that subject, reported late yesterday that an "all-hands" meeting of Facebook officials was called for today. On Monday came the news that Facebook had hired a high-profile attorney, former FTC chairman Timothy Muris, likely to serve as its non-employee counsel for privacy affairs.

In just the past few days, the privacy issue has come to define Facebook as an institution. In a response last Tuesday to questions submitted to The New York Times, Facebook vice president for public policy Elliot Schrage suggested that, while his company may be at fault, the problem was actually one of public perception.

"We know that changing Facebook -- something people have demonstrated is important to them -- can be unsettling. But we're always trying to be better and do more for our users. Clearly, we need to rethink the tempo of change and how we communicate it," Schrage told one questioner, whose follow-up question concerned whether the service's advertisers are truly clamoring to get their hands on users' personal information. "Trust me. We'll do better. The second part of your question reflects what is probably the most common misconception about Facebook. We don't share your information with advertisers. Our targeting is anonymous. We don't identify or share names. Period."

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