Facebook's updated privacy policy has attracted national attention.

Facebook's updated privacy policy has attracted national attention.

A Washington, D.C.-based privacy advocacy group and nine other organizations have filed a complaint against Facebook over the online social network’s latest privacy changes.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said it has asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to look into the changes Facebook has made to its users’ privacy settings and to force Facebook to restore its old privacy safeguards. The changes, unveiled last week, include treating users’ names, profile photo, friends list, gender, and other data as publicly available information.

The complaint says the changes diminish user privacy by disclosing personal information to the public that was previously restricted. (See “How to protect your privacy on Facebook.”)

Among the groups joining EPIC in its complaint are the American Library Association, the Consumer Federation of America, and the Center for Digital Democracy.

Facebook said it discussed the changes with regulators, including the FTC, before making them and that it is disappointed “that EPIC has chosen to share [its] concerns with the FTC while refusing to talk to us about them.”

This is not the first time, and likely not the last, that Facebook has been challenged over how it treats the vast amounts of information it gets from its 350 million users—several million of whom are high school or college students.

Earlier this year, Canada’s privacy commissioner accused the social network of disclosing personal information about its users to the hundreds of thousands of outside developers worldwide who create Facebook applications. In August, Facebook agreed to give users more control over such information sharing.

In September, the company finally shut down its much-maligned Beacon marketing program, which launched two years ago amid fanfare only to generate a storm of privacy complaints over the tracking of user activities at partner web sites.

Facebook had agreed to create a foundation to promote online privacy, safety, and security as part of a $9.5 million settlement in a lawsuit over the program.

The latest flap stems from Facebook’s move last week to change its privacy settings to give users more control over who sees the information they post on their personal pages.

Beginning Dec. 9, the social-networking web site took the rare step of requiring users to review and update their privacy settings.

The new controls were designed to simplify the cumbersome privacy settings that have confounded many people, which is one reason why only 15 to 20 percent of Facebook users have specified their privacy settings. Facebook hoped the changes would encourage more people to be comfortable with sharing more information.

As part of the changes, Facebook users are able to select a privacy setting for each piece of content, such as photos or updates, that they share on the site as they share it. The choices are “friends” only, “friends of friends,” or “everyone,” which means not just Facebook users but everyone on the internet. (The exception: Minors aren’t able to share their content with everyone. For people under 18, the “everyone” setting sends information to “friends of friends.”)

There is also an option to customize groups of friends such as “college buddies” for certain kinds of updates.

Jules Polonetsky, co-chairman and director at the Future of Privacy Forum think tank in Washington, D.C., had praised how the new process resembles the way people decide what to share in their day-to-day lives. He said putting the controls “when you need it, right there, is far better than putting it in a ‘privacy’ or ‘help’ location” somewhere on the site.

Facebook now asks users to review and alter their settings through a tool that explains the privacy changes. People will be able to keep their old settings or take recommendations from Facebook.

The privacy advocates who filed the complaint, however, say the overhaul actually reduces the amount of control Facebook users have over their personal data. Their lists of friends and pages they are fans of are now easily viewable by the public, for instance.

That is troubling, because “even something as seemingly innocuous as your list of friends can reveal a great deal about you,” Kevin Bankston, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote in a blog post. While it is still possible, he noted, to hide your list of friends from the public, the setting is hard to find–which goes against Facebook’s aim of simplifying the privacy settings.

Links:

Electronic Privacy Information Center

Federal Trade Commission

Future of Privacy Forum

Facebook press release about its privacy changes