Facebook Mulls Privacy Implications for Location-Based Data

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As it looks ahead to a new crop of products and features, Facebook has revised its privacy policy and governing document once again, and is now inviting its users to review and comment on the changes.

Michael Richter, Facebook's deputy general counsel, said the revisions clear the path for new features to the site, many of which are still in the concept or development stages, but will include more location-based data. Instead of simply including a piece of geographical information with a post, as the original privacy policy had envisioned, Richter said the location-aware rules are being broadened to apply to include interactions with other Facebook pages, such as those of a local restaurant or business.

Richter said that more details and explicit privacy controls for the location-based features and other updates will be announced as the products roll out.

Facebook switched up its method for revising its site policies last February, following a heated controversy over a change to its terms of usage that to some critics appeared to assert perpetual ownership over its users' information, even after they closed their accounts.

The company has come under persistent attacks throughout its short history for implementing changes that seem to chip away at the site's privacy protections without consulting its members, though Facebook argues that its new method of governance puts it ahead of the pack by engaging its community and soliciting feedback.

"All Web services occasionally have to change their governing documents to accommodate new products," Richter wrote in a blog post describing the latest revisions. "They just may not tell you about these changes, much less give you advance notice."

Just the same, privacy advocates have found plenty of room to criticize Facebook in the 13 months since it adopted the new model. The most notable instance came in December, when Facebook rolled out a site-wide overhaul of its privacy settings, requiring each of its users to update and confirm the controls that govern how widely their information is shared. Facebook argued that this novel approach boosted awareness among its users about their privacy controls, but critics pounced on the company for placing too many default settings at "Everyone," meaning that information would be publicly available across the Web unless the user took an action to change it.

Given many people's tendency to mechanically click through the default settings to complete online dialog boxes, Facebook's privacy changes rang hollow to many consumer groups. A week after Facebook announced the roll-out, a coalition of 10 organizations, led by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, called on the Federal Trade Commission to open an investigation into the changes, which they argued violated provisions aimed to protect against unfair and deceptive trade under federal consumer protection laws.

The new update is not nearly so sweeping, but Richter's blog post has nonetheless elicited the usual potpourri of harsh comments from angry Facebook users threatening to delete their accounts and asking the company to shift its privacy stance to an opt-in regime.

Many of the updates seek to expand or clarify language in the previous version of the privacy policy without altering its substance.

Other changes contain stipulations revising the way data is shared and collected through activities on the third-party applications and Web sites tied to the Facebook Platform. For instance, the rules now assert Facebook's right to automatically share general information, such as a user's name and profile picture, to "pre-approved" third-party Web sites, but offer users mechanisms to opt out or block certain sites.

Facebook says that it still does not share information with its advertisers without a user's consent.

Facebook has posted the changes to its privacy policy here, and is inviting members to submit their feedback at its Site Governance page.

Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.