Mark Zuckerberg Is Losing His War on Privacy

The Atlantic
Mark Zuckerberg Is Losing His War on Privacy
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Mark Zuckerberg Is Losing His War on Privacy

An impending settlement with the Federal Trade Commission will require all new Facebook privacy settings to be opt-in rather than opt-out and sentences the social network to 20 years of scrutiny from government regulators.. The Wall Street Journal broke the news of the deal on Thursday afternoon in advance of the FTC's public announcement:

The proposed settlement – which is awaiting final approval from the agency commissioners – would require Facebook to obtain "express affirmative consent" if Facebook makes "material retroactive changes," some of the people said.

The agreement would require Facebook to submit to independent privacy audits for 20 years, the people said. Google Inc. agreed to similar audits in March, when it settled FTC charges of falsely representing how it would use personal information.

These changes stand to cloud Zuckerberg's vision of a privacy-free future for a couple of reasons. First of all, Facebook is historically not a big fan of making users opt-in, regardless of negative feedback. The German government has been battling with Facebook for months over the launch of a facial recognition feature that required users to opt-out in order to prevent Facebook from collecting their data. Facebook has pushed back hard, insisting that they hadn't violated any laws and refused to meet officials' requests to make the feature opt-in. The German official at the center of the controversy announced on Thursday that "further negotiations are pointless," and he was preparing legal action against Facebook. Awkwardly, news of the German lawsuit broke around the same time news of the FTC settlement leaked. While the German lawsuit will have little effect on American users, the FTC's new requirement could tip the scales on similar investigations into Facebook's privacy practices around the world.

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Then there's the matter of the FTC audits. We don't yet know how aggressive the scrutiny will be — Google's agreement required "audits conducted by independent third parties every two years to assess its privacy and data protection practices" — but more aggressive regulation present new barrier at a time when Facebook is trying to break down walls that stand to stifle its growth. The social network's latest round of changes marks a move towards what they call "frictionless sharing," which amounts to broadcasting more of your activities on the site in real-time. At the very least, the prospect of government oversight stands to affect not only Facebook but also its partners. Although the new opt-in-only requirement only applies to new features, the audit requirement sounds more comprehensive. Facebook tends to make lofty promises these days when it comes to privacy settings. In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, Mark Zuckerberg said, "You have control over every single thing you've shared on Facebook." However with users complaining about how the new frictionless sharing features don't actually go away when you opt-out and tracking cookies reappear after being deleted, Facebook has a history of breaking their promises. 

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Until we know the exact details of the FTC settlement, it's difficult to predict how much this will affect Facebook's future. In the framework of Zuckerberg's war on privacy — an attempt to encourage people to accept what former Facebook president Sean Parker calls the increasingly "creepy" ways that Facebook is tracking our lives — the very existence of increased government scrutiny is a battle lost. But that's what all those fancy new lobbyists are for, right?

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