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Not so fast, Facebook.

The Federal Trade Commission is reviewing proposed changes to Facebook’s privacy policy concerning the use of user names and images in advertisements, according to multiple published reports. Implementation of the new policy is already a week overdue, a delay that coincides with filing of complaints by various privacy organizations last week asking for the FTC to intercede.

“The Federal Trade Commission must act now to protect the interests of Facebook users…The right of a person to control the use of their image for commercial purposes is the cornerstone of modern privacy law,” said the letter, signed by executives from the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Center for Digital Democracy, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse and others. “It requires ‘Alice in Wonderland’ logic to see this as anything but a major setback for the privacy rights of Facebook users.”

Facebook has a special legal duty to clear privacy policy changes with the FTC because of a settlement the firm signed with the agency back in 2011 over a different privacy controversy. The settlement requires Facebook to submit to regular audits by the FTC.

There’s disagreement about whether that review of the updated policy actually occurred, leading privacy groups to allege that Facebook is in violation of a court order. The FTC told the New York Times that Facebook did not reach out to the agency prior to indicating a change was coming; Facebook says it has complied with regular reviews required by the order.

Clarification or Change?

The central issue in the debate is this: Does the policy update really represent a material change? In the new policy, Facebook clarifies its right to use customer data, including user names and faces, in advertisements. Facebook has maintained the language changes merely make the policy more readable.

In a blog post accompanying the original proposed update, Facebook’s Chief Privacy Officer Erin Eagan wrote that the firm had “revised our explanation” of how user information might be used with commercial content.

“We hope this clarification helps you understand how we use your information in this way,” she said, careful to avoid the use of the term “change,” and implying the policy it explains has been in place for some time.

But even some members of Congress don’t see it that way.

“This troubling shift in policy raises a number of questions about whether Facebook is improperly altering its privacy policy without proper user consent and, if the changes go into effect, the degree to which Facebook users will lose control over their personal information,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) in a letter he sent to the FTC this week asking it to examine the change.

Privacy groups have called specific attention to verbiage in the new policy that indicates the firm assumes parents give consent to the use of teenage children’s names in advertisements.

“The impact on minors is particularly pernicious,” their letter says. “Such ‘deemed consent’ eviscerates any meaningful limits over the commercial exploitation of the images and names of young Facebook users.”

There is no timetable for the FTC review, or for Facebook to implement the changes, which initially were scheduled to take effect Sept. 5. So stay tuned.

Image: iStockphoto

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