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Thursday, September 5, 2013

Privacy Groups Ask F.T.C. to Block Facebook Policy Changes

A coalition of six major consumer privacy groups has asked the Federal Trade Commission to block coming changes to Facebook’s privacy policies that they say would make it easier for the social network to use personal data about its users, including children under 18, in advertising on the site.

In a letter sent to the agency late Wednesday, the coalition said Facebook’s changes, scheduled to go into effect later this week, violate a 2011 order and settlement with the F.T.C. over user privacy.

“Facebook users who reasonably believed that their images and content would not be used for commercial purposes without their consent will now find their pictures showing up on the pages of their friends endorsing the products of Facebook’s advertisers,” the letter says. “Remarkably, their images could even be used by Facebook to endorse products that the user does not like or even use.”

As I wrote in a Bits post last week, the plain language in Facebook’s new policy documents seems to reverse the default setting for user privacy when it comes to advertising.

The old language gives users the explicit right to control how their names, faces and other information are used for advertising and other commercial purposes. The company’s new policy says consumers are automatically giving Facebook the right to use their information unless they explicitly revoke permission  â€" and the company made that harder to do by removing the direct link to the control used to adjust that permission.

“Facebook is now claiming the default setting is they can use everyone’s name and image for advertising and commercial purposes, including those of minors, without their consent,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, one of the groups that wrote the letter, in an interview. “Red lights are going off in the privacy world.”

The privacy groups, which helped persuade the F.T.C. to issue the 2011 order, said Facebook’s changes regarding children were especially problematic. The company’s new policy says that if a user is under age 18, “you represent that at least one of your parents or legal guardians has also agreed to the terms of this section (and the use of your name, profile picture, content, and information) on your behalf.”

“It’s an extraordinary claim to make,” Mr. Rotenberg said. “That’s something you can’t do without explicit consent.”

He said courts and regulators have found that the personal information of children should receive special privacy protection.

Facebook, which has nearly 1.2 billion users worldwide, said last week that the privacy policy changes were partly made to clarify what it does with user information as part of a recent class-action settlement in the United States over its privacy practices.

“As part of this proposed update, we revised our explanation of how things like your name, profile picture and content may be used in connection with ads or commercial content to make it clear that you are granting Facebook permission for this use when you use our services,” a company spokeswoman, Debbie Frost, said in a statement on Wednesday. “We have not changed our ads practices or policies â€" we only made things clearer for people who use our service.”

Comments by Facebook users have been overwhelmingly negative on the official page where the company’s chief privacy officer for policy, Erin Egan, announced the changes.

The groups asking the F.T.C. to block Facebook’s privacy changes are the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Watchdog, Patient Privacy Rights, U.S. PIRG, and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

An F.T.C. spokeswoman could not confirm receipt of the letter on Wednesday evening and had no additional comment.

Typically, the agency does review such letters. And in the case of the 2011 Facebook settlement, the agency periodically examines the company’s compliance with the commission’s order.

A version of this article appears in print on 09/05/2013, on page B3 of the NewYork edition with the headline: Privacy Groups Aim to Stop Facebook Policy Changes.