Facebook Under EU Privacy Probe Over Facial Recognition Prompt for Photos

A privacy-rights group said it plans to file a complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission over Facebook Inc.’s facial-recognition feature for photo tagging.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center, based in Washington, is working on the complaint and will present it to the agency today or tomorrow, Marc Rotenberg, the group’s executive director, said in an interview. Other privacy and consumer groups plan to sign onto the complaint, Rotenberg said, declining to identify them.

Facebook, owner of the world’s most popular social- networking service, said on its blog yesterday that “Tag Suggestions” are available in most countries after being phased in over several months. The feature uses facial-recognition software so when a user posts a new photo to a Facebook page it suggests names of people to tag based on pictures in which they have already been identified.

The feature also is drawing scrutiny in the European Union, where a group of privacy watchdogs from the EU’s 27 nations said earlier today it will study photo-tagging for possible rules violations. Authorities in the U.K. and Ireland said they are also looking into the situation.

A spokesman for Facebook, Andrew Noyes, declined to comment on the center’s plans for a complaint to the FTC. Since announcing the Tag Suggestions feature in December 2010, and gradually rolling it out, “millions of people have used it to add hundreds of millions of tags,” Noyes said in an e-mail.

“This data, and the fact that we’ve had almost no user complaints, suggests people are enjoying the feature and are finding it useful,” Noyes said. Facebook made turning off the feature “easy,” he said.

FTC spokesman Mitch Katz said he couldn’t immediately confirm whether the agency has received the complaint.

Active by Default

The facial-recognition feature is active by default on existing users’ accounts, and Palo Alto, California-based Facebook explains on its blog how people can disable the function.

U.S. Representative Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, said requiring Facebook users to disable the facial recognition feature “is no substitute for” allowing users to choose whether they want to use it.

“If this new feature is as useful as Facebook claims, it should be able to stand on its own, without an automatic sign-up that changes users’ privacy settings without their permission,” Markey, who is co-chairman of the Bi-Partisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, said in an e-mail.

Facebook Under Pressure

Facebook is under pressure to protect individuals’ information as it seeks revenue from the 500 million users who play games, post photos and communicate using the site. In April, Facebook announced additional safety tools, including a redesigned “Family Safety Center” that has videos and articles for teenagers, parents and teachers.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center logged its first privacy complaint against Facebook in December 2009, asking the FTC to investigate whether consumers were harmed when Facebook changed its default privacy settings. The group, which updated the complaints twice last year, called on the agency to require Facebook to give users “meaningful control over personal information.”

Nine consumer advocacy groups, including the American Library Association, Consumer Federation of America and The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, signed on to the first complaint.

‘A Close Look’

The FTC hasn’t acted on that letter, which asks the agency to compel Facebook to allow users to choose whether to disclose personal information and to allow them to choose to fully opt- out of revealing information to third-party developers.

FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, in a June 2010 interview, said “we’re taking a very close look at Facebook,” while declining to say whether the agency had opened a formal investigation.

In March, the FTC settled privacy complaints with Internet companies Twitter Inc. and Google Inc. (GOOG) with 20-year agreements. The Google settlement ended a complaint filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center regarding the company’s social- networking service, Buzz. Rotenburg said at the time the Google settlement was “significant” and “far-reaching.”

In Europe, the U.K.’s Information Commissioner’s Office is also “speaking to Facebook” about the privacy aspects of the photo tagging technology, said Greg Jones, a spokesman for the group.

“We would expect Facebook to be upfront about how people’s personal information is being used,” Jones said. “The privacy issues that this new software might raise are obvious.”

The Irish data-protection authority is also looking into the issue, said spokeswoman Ciara O’Sullivan.

The group guides the work of national data-protection agencies, which have the power to punish companies that break privacy rules.

To contact the reporters on this story: Eric Engleman in Washington at eengleman1@bloomberg.net; Sara Forden in Washington at sforden@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Allan Holmes at aholmes25@bloomberg.net; Michael Hytha at mhytha@bloomberg.net

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