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In re Facebook II

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  • Wiretapping Claims Against Facebook Move Forward as Supreme Court Denies Review: This week, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition for review in In re: Facebook, Inc. Internet Tracking Litigation, a case challenging Facebook's use of "cookies" to track internet browsing activity even when users were logged out of their Facebook accounts. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that Facebook's use of cookies to track Internet users browsing other websites might violate the federal Wiretap Act because Facebook was not an authorized party to those communications. Facebook's efforts to get the Supreme Court to reject this holding of the Ninth Circuit failed, and now the case will move forward. EPIC filed an amicus brief in the Ninth Circuit in this case and has filed briefs opposing settlements in other cases challenging cookie-based surveillance. EPIC has long advocated against the use of cookies and other surveillance tools to track people online. EPIC continues to advocate for clear rules and restrictions on web tracking as companies replace cookies with new surveillance techniques that would do little to protect privacy online. (Mar. 22, 2021)
  • Court Approves FTC-Facebook Deal, But Says Data Protection Laws Need Updating: Despite objections from EPIC and other consumer groups, a federal judge has approved the Federal Trade Commission’s settlement with Facebook over the company’s alleged violations of the 2012 consent decree and the FTC Act. The court called Facebook’s alleged conduct “stunning,” “unscrupulous,” “shocking,” and “underhanded,” and even stated that it “might well have fashioned different remedies were it doing so out of whole cloth.” The court nevertheless approved the deal because of the “deferential” standard it felt bound to apply, but the court warned that, should the FTC accuse Facebook of further violations of the law, the court “may not apply quite the same deference to the terms of a proposed resolution.” EPIC had moved to intervene in the case and filed an amicus brief arguing that the deal imposes “few new obligations on the company that would limit the collection and use of personal data, nor will there be any significant changes in business practices.” The court denied EPIC’s motion to intervene but acknowledged that EPIC’s arguments as amicus “call into question the adequacy of laws governing how technology companies that collect and monetize Americans’ personal information must treat that information.” (Apr. 24, 2020)
  • EPIC Uncovers 3,156 More Facebook Complaints at FTC—Over 29,000 Now Pending: Through a Freedom of Information Act Request, EPIC has obtained thousands of new consumer complaints (part 1, part 2)against Facebook. The most recent documents, released to EPIC, follow the Commission’s proposed $5 b settlement in July. Among the complaints uncovered by EPIC are those from consumer groups and members of Congress. EPIC also obtained records of new complaints in the FTC’s Consumer Sentinel database. EPIC earlier uncovered 26,000 complaints against Facebook since the announcement of the 2011 consent order. EPIC is formally challenging the proposed settlement with Facebook, charging that the Commission has failed to investigate thousands of complaints against the company. (Sep. 22, 2019)
  • EPIC Pursues Intervention in FTC Facebook Case: EPIC has filed a reply brief in support of its motion to intervene in United States v. Facebook, a case concerning the proposed settlement between the Federal Trade Commission and Facebook. The Government and Facebook have sought to block EPIC's participation. EPIC pursued intervention to protect the interests of Facebook users and to ensure that pending complaints at the FTC were not ignored. EPIC told the court overseeing the case that the settlement "is not adequate, reasonable, or appropriate." In response to Facebook and the government, EPIC explained that the settlement is "arbitrary and capricious because the Commission seeks to grant Facebook immunity from any unlawful practices identified in prior consumer complaints, without addressing or even identifying the prior complaints." EPIC also argues that the FTC's failure to consider public comments on the settlement, as the agency is required to do under its own regulations, "denies EPIC and others the opportunity to submit comments on the consent agreement." An EPIC FOIA lawsuit uncovered more than 26,000 complaints against Facebook pending at the agency. In 2009, EPIC and other consumer privacy organizations filed the original complaint that created legal authority for the FTC to oversee Facebook's privacy practices. Many members of Congress, consumer organizations, and corporate law experts have opposed the proposed settlement, which was narrowly approved by the Commission, 3-2. (Aug. 12, 2019)
  • EPIC Challenges FTC-Facebook Settlement, Asks Court to Hear from Privacy Groups: EPIC has filed a Motion to Intervene in United States v. Facebook to protect the interests of Facebook users. The case concerns a proposed settlement between the FTC and Facebook. EPIC said the settlement "is not adequate, reasonable, or appropriate." EPIC also explained that the settlement would extinguish more than 26,000 consumer complaints against Facebook pending at the FTC. EPIC asked the court for an opportunity for EPIC and others to be heard before the settlement is finalized. EPIC filed the original complaint that created legal authority for the FTC to oversee Facebook. Back in 2011, EPIC also urged the Commission to require Facebook to restore the privacy settings of users, give users access to all of the data that Facebook keeps about them, stop making facial recognition profiles without users' consent, make the results of the government privacy audits public, and stop secretly tracking users across the web. Earlier this year, EPIC and others urged the FTC to pursue structural remedies, including the divestiture of WhatsApp. Many organizations and individuals have expressed concern about the proposed settlement, which was narrowly approved by the Commission, 3-2. More info at (Jul. 26, 2019)
  • BREAKING - FTC Issues Facebook Fine, EPIC - "Too little, too late.": The Federal Trade Commission announced today the first fine against Facebook since EPIC and a coalition of privacy organizations filed a complaint with the Commission about the company’s businesses practices back in 2009. In a 2011 consent order the FTC said it would bar Facebook "from making any further deceptive privacy claims.” But in the years that followed, the FTC failed to act even as complaints emerged about marketing to children, privacy settings, tracking users, gathering health data, and facial recognition. Earlier this year, EPIC determined that there were 26,000 complaints against Facebook pending at the Commission. EPIC President Marc Rotenberg said today, “The FTC’s action is too little, too late. American consumers cannot wait another decade for the Commission to act against a company that violates their privacy rights. Congress should move quickly to establish a data protection agency." (Jul. 24, 2019)
  • Court Rules D.C. Attorney General's Lawsuit Against Facebook Will Proceed: The D.C. Superior Court denied Facebook's motion to dismiss the complaint filed by D.C. Attorney General over the privacy practices that led to Cambridge Analytica. The D.C. Attorney General alleged that Facebook failed to monitor third-party use of personal data and failed to ensure users' data was deleted. The lawsuit seeks financial penalties, and an injunction to establish safeguards to protect users' data. The court ruled that the case could proceed because "District of Columbia residents' widespread utilization of, and repeated exchange of personal information through Facebook's online social networking service, constitute 'transactions.'" EPIC launched the #EnforceTheOrder campaign to pressure the FTC to take enforcement action against Facebook. EPIC brought the original complaint to the FTC in 2009 that led to the consent order. Facebook anticipates a $3-5 billion fine from the FTC. (Jun. 3, 2019)
  • Facebook Anticipates $3B-$5B Fine: According to news reports, Facebook has budgeted $3 billion for in its first-quarter earnings report, saying it expected the FTC to fine the company between $3-$5 billion. In January, EPIC and a coalition of consumer and civil rights groups sent a letter to the FTC calling on the Commission to enforce the order against Facebook by 1) imposing substantial fines; 2) establishing structural remedies; 3) requiring compliance with Fair Information Practices; 4) reforming hiring and management practices; and 5) restoring democratic governance. Also, EPIC's Freedom of Information Act request revealed that there are there are over 26,000 complaints pending against Facebook. In the eight years since the FTC announced the consent order barring Facebook from making any misrepresentation about user privacy, the FTC has not taken a single enforcement action against the company. EPIC launched the #EnforceTheOrder campaign to pressure the FTC to take enforcement action against Facebook. EPIC brought the original complaint to the FTC in 2009 that led to the consent order. (Apr. 26, 2019)
  • Senator Blumenthal Calls on FTC to Unwind Big Tech Mergers: In a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing earlier this week, Senator Richard Blumenthal said that antitrust enforcers must consider unwinding anticompetitive mergers. “Over the past decade tech companies have in effect been given a free pass by antitrust regulators,” Senator Blumenthal said. "Facebook perhaps should never been allowed to acquire Instagram, Google to acquire DoubleClick. I have come to the conclusion that maybe post merger, some of these transactions should be challengeable, rarely done, but still challengeable, especially when the merger is approved on conditions that are then violated.” Earlier this year, EPIC joined a coalition of groups urging the FTC to unwind the Facebook-WhatsApp merger, citing promises the companies made at time of the merger. (Mar. 7, 2019)
  • EPIC, Open Markets, Civil Rights Groups Press FTC on Facebook Consent Order: EPIC joined a coalition of groups urging the FTC to issue strong penalties in Facebook matter. "Given that Facebook’s violations are so numerous in scale, severe in nature, impactful for such a large portion of the American public and central to the company’s business model, and given the company’s massive size and influence over American consumers, penalties and remedies that go far beyond the Commission’s recent actions are called for,” the letter stated. The groups said the FTC should 1) impose substantial fines; 2) establish structural remedies; 3) require compliance with Fair Information Practices; 4) reform hiring and management practices; and 5) restore democratic governance. (Jan. 23, 2019)

Summary of EPIC's Facebook Complaint

On May 7, 2010, EPIC and fourteen other organizations filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, alleging that Facebook has engaged in unfair and deceptive trade practices. The complaint addresses Facebook's latest round of changes, including linking profile information, abolishing the 24 hour data retention limit for developers, instituting social plugins and "Instant Personalization," and the use of cookies by Facebook to track users' internet activity.

In the complaint, EPIC asks the FTC to open an investigation into Facebook, to compel Facebook to allow users to choose whether to link and publicly disclose personal information, to compel Facebook to restore its previous requirement that developers retain user information for no more than 24 hours, and to compel Facebook to make its data collection practices clearer and more comprehensible. The following organizations signed onto the complaint:

  • The Electronic Privacy Information Center
  • The Bill of Rights Defense Committee
  • The Center for Digital Democracy
  • The Center for Financial Privacy and Human Rights
  • Center for Media and Democracy
  • Consumer Federation of America
  • Consumer Task Force for Automotive Issues
  • Consumer Watchdog
  • FoolProof Financial Education
  • Patient Privacy Rights
  • Privacy Activism
  • Privacy Journal
  • The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
  • The U.S. Bill of Rights Foundation
  • U.S. PIRG



Facebook is a social networking site founded in 2004 by Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg. The site “connects people with friends and others who work, study and live around them.” As of December 2009, Facebook has nearly 150 million users in the United States.

Facebook and Privacy

Facebook has had a controversial history with respect to privacy. In 2006, Facebook launched a feature called “News Feed” which allowed users to track their friends’ Facebook updates and activity in real time. Within 24 hours, hundreds of thousands of the site’s users protested the feature. One Facebook group, “Students against Facebook News Feed” grew to 284,000 members within just a few days. As a result of the widespread protest, Mark Zuckerberg wrote an open letter to Facebook users, apologizing for doing a “bad job of explaining what the new features were and an even worse job of giving you control of them." Facebook then updated its privacy settings to allow for more user control over the News Feed Feature.

In 2007, Facebook launched Facebook Beacon, which allowed a Facebook user’s purchases to be publicized on their friends’ News Feed after transacting with third-party sites. Users were unaware that such features were being tracked, and the privacy settings originally did not allow users to opt out. As a result of widespread criticism, Facebook Beacon was shut down in 2009.

In February 2009, Facebook changed its Terms of Service. The new TOS allowed Facebook to use anything a user uploads to the site for any purpose, at any time, even after the user ceased to use Facebook. Further, the TOS did not provide for a way that users could completely close their account. Rather, users could “deactivate” their account, but all the information would be retained by Facebook, rather than deleted. EPIC planned to file an FTC complaint, alleging that the new Terms of Service violated the FTC Act Section 5, and constituted “unfair and deceptive trade practices.” In response to this planned complaint, and user criticism, Facebook returned to its previous Terms of Service.

EPIC's Previous Facebook Complaint

In late 2009, Facebook rolled out another round of changes which required mandatory disclosure of profile information that had previously been protected by users' privacy settings. The site automatically made some user information, including users' names, profile pictures, friends lists, fan pages, gender, and networks, available to the public, including to third-party developers, without offering users a choice to opt-out. The new Facebook privacy policy stated that “certain categories of information . . . are considered publicly available to everyone, including Facebook-enhanced applications, and therefore do not have privacy settings.” Consequently, users could no longer control who views certain types of information and could not prevent third-party applications from viewing certain types of information. EPIC, along with several other organizations, filed a complaint and supplemental complaint, with the FTC, citing "unfair and deceptive trade practices," and urging the agency to investigate.

EPIC filed a supplemental complaint regarding several Facebook services, including Facebook Connect and iPhone syncing. EPIC alleged that Facebook's representations regarding Facebook Connect and iPhone syncing were unfair and deceptive because users who employ the services are not informed beforehand that they will no longer have control over their information.

To date, the FTC has failed to take any action regarding these complaints.

EPIC's FTC Complaint

EPIC’s FTC complaint is signed by a number of other organizations, including the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the Center for Digital Democracy, the Center for Financial Privacy and Human Rights, the Center for Media and Democracy, the Consumer Federation of America, the Consumer Task Force for Automotive Issues, Consumer Watchdog, FoolProof Financial Education, Patient Privacy Rights, Privacy Activism, Privacy Journal, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, the U.S. Bill of Rights Foundation, and U.S. PIRG.

The complaint highlights several aspects of Facebook’s most recent changes that threaten its users’ privacy. The complaint focuses on Facebook's unfair and deceptive trade practice of sharing of user information with the public and with third-party application developers. First, the complaint argues that Facebooks decision to force users to make previously protected information "publicly available" is an unfair practice. Second, the complaint argues that Facebook’s new social plugins and instant personalization are misleading and deceptive. Third, Facebook deceives users by not clearly informing them about cookies which Facebook uses to track users' internet activity. Fourth, Facebook's decision to allow developers to maintain user information indefinitely contradicts its previous policies and assurances to users.

Facebook now requires mandatory disclosure of even more information, including users' music, film, television, and literature preferences, employment information, educational information, current city, hometown, activities, interests, and likes and dislikes. Facebook forced users to convert information that had previously been protected under privacy settings into "links," which are "publicly available" information. Users were not given a choice to opt-out of this process. Users could either convert profile information into "links" or Facebook would remove the information from that user's profile. These changes contradict earlier assurances made by the company that users would be empowered to protect their information because, as Facebook stated, "you may not want everyone in the world to have the information you share on Facebook.”

The changes also contradict users' reasonable expectation about their privacy. Facebook allows users to adjust their privacy settings, but these adjustments have no practical effect on the public availability of information such as pages, links, employment information, and film and music preferences. Even if a user adjusts her settings so this information is limited to "friends only," the information may not be visible on the user's profile, but it is still publicly available elsewhere.

EPIC's complaint also alleges that Facebook's social plugin program is unfair and deceptive. Facebook has also developed a social plugin program that encourages users to interact with websites across the internet. “Social plugins” are buttons or boxes that appear on third party websites that prompt a Facebook user to click on or comment on items of interest. For example, is a user chooses to "Like" a news article by clicking on a "Like" button, this action is displayed on the third party website, disclosed to the user's friends and appears on the user's Facebook profile. This interaction results in user information being shared with those websites and the user's interaction being published to her friends on her "news feed." This sharing of information is not apparent to users, though, because all that users see when they navigate to a social plugin site is a small "like" or "recommend" button. There is nothing about the button which indicates the vast underlying exchange of information that occurs when a user clicks on it.

Facebook's new Instant Personalization feature is also problematic. Instant personalization allows three partner websites - Microsoft Docs, Pandora, and Yelp - to use cookies and users' "publicly available" information to serve Facebook users a tailored "experience." Pandora, for example, uses information in a user's profile to serve him music based on his stated music preferences and his friends' music preferences. Facebook disclosed user information to these three partner sites without users ever granting their permission.

Facebook has also changed its developer data retention rule in a way that profoundly affects users, without ever gaining users' consent. Previously, Facebook had limited developers data retention by mandating that developers delete user information after 24 hours. That rule was abolished to allow developers to maintain user information indefinitely.

Facebook has also failed to be transparent regarding its use of cookies. Facebook uses cookies to track users across the internet, destroying their ability to surf the internet anonymously. EPICs complaint argues that the use of cookies is not obvious to Facebook users or controllable under the privacy settings.

These changes together amount to a massive disclosure of user information that had previously been protected under users' privacy settings. This information has now been disclosed to third parties and can be retained indefinitely.

FTC Authority to Act

The FTC's primary enforcement authority with regards to privacy is derived from 15 U.S.C. ยง 45, commonly known as section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTCA). Section 5 of the FTCA allows the FTC to investigate "unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce, and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce." This law provides a legal basis for the FTC to regulate business activities that threaten consumer privacy.

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