German government criticises Facebook's data regulations

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Minister "astonished" by proposed changes.

The German federal minister of consumer protection, Ilse Aigner, has written an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg criticising recent changes to data protection regulations on the website.

Published on the Spiegel online website, Aigner claimed that she was "astonished" to discover that the social networking site was relaxing data protection regulations on the network even further despite the concerns of users and severe criticism from consumer activists.

She said: “Your current privacy policy states that in future user data is to be automatically passed on to third parties. These parties are supposed to comprise previously vetted operators of websites and applications. Anyone who does not want this to happen must take action themselves and use the opt-out function.”

As a frequent internet user, Aigner said that as a member of Facebook, she finds social networks to be "an enrichment" and said that importance must be attached to protecting privacy.

She said: “It is therefore all the more astounding that Facebook is not willing to eliminate the existing shortcomings regarding data protection, but is instead going even further. Decisions such as this will not engender trust in an enterprise in the long term. I expect Facebook to revise its privacy policy without delay.

“Facebook must ensure that the personal details of all members are subject to a high level of protection. Planned amendments to its terms of use must be communicated to all users in a clear and straightforward manner prior to the amendments being made.

“Personal data is not allowed to be automatically passed on to third parties for commercial purposes without consent. Private data may only be passed on and used for commercial purposes with the consent of the persons involved. Enterprises such as Facebook bear a particular responsibility due to the fact that users, in particular young users, are not aware that their personal profiles are to be used for commercial purposes.”

She concluded by claiming that if Facebook was not willing to alter its business policy and eliminate the "glaring shortcomings", she would feel obliged to terminate her account.

There was no direct response from Facebook at the time of writing. Barry Schnitt, a director on the communications and public policy team, wrote that the notice and comment process for the latest set of proposed changes to Facebook's governing documents had been concluded.

He said that more than 4,000 comments from people around the world, including users, regulators and online privacy advocates, had been received, and it was taking feedback into account as its product teams and engineers are designing and coding.

As well as questions on the ability to hide a friends list and requirements to limit users to one account, he said that users had "asked to be opted-out of having their information shared with advertisers".

He said: “This reflects a common misconception about advertising on Facebook. We don't share your information with advertisers unless you tell us to (e.g. to get a sample, hear more, or enter a contest). Any assertion to the contrary is false. Period.

“Instead, we enable advertisers to target anonymised demographics and attributes. That is, a company selling boats can target people between 40 and 50 years old who expressed an interest in boating. However, we never provide the advertiser any names or other information about the people who are shown, or even who click on, the ads.”

Regarding questions about the proposals to work with some pre-approved partner websites, Schnitt also moved to clarify on points despite the program not yet having been launched or even finalised.

He said: “First, it's important to underscore that this will be a test with a handful of carefully selected partners to provide express personalisation on their sites. These partners will be pre-selected, reviewed and bound by contracts with Facebook – much like other partners we have worked with in other contexts to deliver unique and innovative experiences.

“For example, we're working with Yahoo to integrate Facebook across their properties, AOL to integrate our chat with AIM, and we first partnered with to make their broadcast of the presidential inauguration more social with the launch of the Facebook live stream application.

“In addition, partners who participate in this test will be required to provide an easy and prominent method for you to opt out directly from their website and delete your data if you do opt out. There will also be new features on to help you control your experience when you visit these sites.

“In sum, the core idea behind this test is to work with partners to enable them to present you with a better, more relevant and tailored experience when you visit their sites. While we have not finalised these features or partnerships, we think this is an exciting opportunity to make surfing the web a smoother and more engaging experience for people who use Facebook.”

Writing on the allfacebook blog, Nick O'Neill said: “Honestly, I still can't figure out a situation in which Facebook should be allowed to determine who can access my data. This method of changing the privacy policy prior to announcing the product seems like somewhat of a back door technique but we'll have to wait until Facebook announces the partnerships later this month. For now, users will have to standby with their pitchforks ready to find out what Facebook has in store.”

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