This month, Facebook made a sneaky change to its privacy settings, and the new policy is generating a fierce backlash. The social network's default privacy setting now allows anyone to see a user's personal information. While users are permitted to change those settings, through an option to limit how much information they share, many don't yet realize that their Facebook updates can suddenly be seen across the Web. That's not what most users signed up for, and many are angry.Last week, 10 privacy organizations filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. Led by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the complaint says Facebook's privacy policies "violate federal consumer protection law." Inadvertently sharing your list of friends with outside companies, and your profile information with users beyond your circle of friends, are among the issues EPIC disputes.

%%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%% This all has a familiarly creepy ring to it. Remember when you loaned your high school yearbook to a friend for them to sign? Sometimes you'd get the yearbook back with that person's well wishes -- plus signatures from other folks who'd borrowed your book and signed, too. That wasn't cool: Your non-pals had read your actual pals' messages to you. That's a more simplistic version of what Facebook is doing, or hoping to get you to do: opening up your account to non-pals to read.

Short-Term Gains

Most users view Facebook as a safe place to share information with other users whom they select: a closed network of friends and family who have been invited to see their information. By quietly pushing its users beyond that privacy comfort zones, the company may indeed profit -- in the short term.

But if Facebook loses the trust of its users, the mounting scorn will cost the company its reputation. CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook officers are taking advantage of their trusting customers who don't see their information getting sold off to salivating advertisers. And they'll ultimately have the same reputation as the kid who signs your yearbook without your permission.

Facebook's privacy page notes that the site has changed "a lot" in the past five years, and that "people are generally sharing more information, and" -- wishful thinking, perhaps -- "they are becoming more comfortable sharing more information." The recent privacy changes, it says, are meant to "address these shifting social norms" -- although some critics suggest that the real goal here is to better compete with Twitter, where most users open their updates to all.

Legal Challenges

Whatever their motives, the company clearly wants users to share more information with "everyone," because such information has value to potential advertisers. DailyFinance's Tom Johansmeyer wrote that it was only a matter of time until someone decided to challenge Facebook legally. A Facebook spokesman told the Wall Street Journal that it "discussed the privacy program with many regulators, including the FTC, prior to launch and expect[ed] to continue to work with them in the future."

What would be most useful and honest, though, would be for Facebook to bonk users over the head with the message that their updates are being made public. That may not best serve the company's needs, but users should not be duped into opening up their information. Because while getting 350 million users to share their personal information publicly may attract advertisers, it erodes the trust of those who use Facebook and make it an increasingly powerful network.

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