Facebook Privacy Flaws Faulted in Consumer Complaint to FTC

Facebook Inc., the largest social- networking site, is facing renewed criticism from consumer groups that it’s not doing enough to protect information after a security flaw exposed private messages between friends.

Recent changes at Facebook “violate user expectations, diminish user privacy, and contradict Facebook’s own representations,” said Marc Rotenberg, who runs the Electronic Privacy Information Center, one of 15 groups that complained about Facebook in a filing with the Federal Trade Commission late yesterday.

Signers urged the FTC to investigate Facebook’s privacy practices and force it to take steps to better guard against security breaches. The complaint follows an effort led by New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer last week to get the FTC to review how the social network deals with user data.

Consumer groups stepped up criticism of Facebook earlier this month after the company added features that let users tell their friends about products and other Web sites they favor. The program builds on an existing feature that lets people click “like” when a friend posts a status update, photo or Web link.

While adding those tools, Palo Alto, California-based Facebook altered how a user’s profile information is classified and disclosed, according to the complaint. The result, EPIC says, is that “Facebook now discloses personal information to the public that Facebook users previously restricted.”

Shutting Down Chat

“Our new features are providing beneficial new social experiences to people around the world that are transparent, consistent with user expectations, and in full compliance with legal requirements,” Andrew Noyes, a spokesman for Facebook, said in an e-mailed message.

The FTC has the complaint and is reviewing it, said Claudia Bourne-Farrell, a spokeswoman for the commission.

Earlier yesterday, Facebook temporarily shut down its “chat” feature after discovering a security flaw that let users see friends’ messages that were not meant to be shared.

The software error, reported initially by technology blog TechCrunch, exposed the chat conversations and friend requests of people within a user’s network when they clicked on an option in the site’s settings.

“When we received reports of the problem, our engineers promptly diagnosed it and temporarily disabled the chat function,” Facebook spokeswoman Malorie Lucich said in a statement.

After Schumer’s public remarks last week, company officials met with representatives of the senator and agreed that Facebook users should control public access to personal information and that the company should explain how to accomplish that, Elliot Schrage, Facebook’s vice president of global communications and public policy, said at the time.

To contact the reporters on this story: Douglas MacMillan at douglas_macmillan@businessweek.com

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