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14 Nov 2011

Privacy campaigners have welcomed a report that Facebook is to ask users to opt into any changes in the way it uses their personal information.

The social network previously announced alterations to its members' settings without asking for fresh consent.

The website is changing its policy after an investigation by the US Federal Trade Commission, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal.

Facebook is not commenting on the story at this time.

The report suggests the site has also agreed to privacy audits by an independent organisation over the next 20 years.

However, it says the FTC does not prescribe how consent should be obtained.

"Facebook has historically been extremely resistant to transparency in its own operations, so we welcome measures that would force the company to obtain express consent of its users," said the London based advocacy group Privacy International.

"However, it seems likely that the FTC's demands will only present a temporary obstacle in the path of Facebook's ambitions to collect its users' information.

"Faced with reams of small print, most users are likely to automatically agree to policy changes, with each change bringing us one step closer to Zuckerberg's vision of a privacy-free future."

The website's founder, Mark Zuckerberg, was questioned about the firm's privacy policies on the US television network PBS' Charlie Rose show earlier this week.

"You have control over every single thing you've shared on Facebook," he said, "You can take it down."

He also said other search engines and advertising networks gathered "huge amount of information" about internet users through cookies, which he claimed was "less transparent than what is happening at Facebook".

The FTC's intervention is being linked to the Washington-based campaign group, Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

It filed a complaint with the commission in December 2009 claiming that privacy setting changes "violate user expectations, diminish user privacy and contradict Facebook's own representations".

EPIC noted that the website's users, security experts and others had voiced opposition to the change.

The organisation filed a follow-up complaint in 2010 claiming the social network had violated consumer protection law.

This year, EPIC also asked the FTC to investigate Facebook's use of facial recognition software on users' uploaded photographs and changes that gave the firm "far greater ability to disclose the personal information of its users to its business partners".
Knock-on effects

Facebook says it has more than 800 million members who have used the site at least once in the past 30 days.

The Reuters news agency recently reported that the site's revenues totalled $1.6bn (£1bn) in the first six months of the year thanks to its popularity with advertisers.

Facebook does not release detailed results as it is not a publicly traded company, although there is speculation it will float its stock in 2012.

Legal experts say any settlement with the FTC is likely to have implications for other internet firms.

"Users are not social networking sites' primary customers, advertisers and marketers are," said Andrew Charlesworth, director of the centre for IT and law at the University of Bristol.

"While the FTC settlement indicates sites must be more open about the ways they make personal data available, and provide users with greater control, Facebook and others will already be rethinking the techniques they use to persuade users to keep their personal data publicly accessible."



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