Stephen Foley: Facebook poked into action by privacy regulator

Outlook: At last, regulators are coming to the aid of users concerned about their privacy on the internet.

Facebook looks like it is about to submit to 20 years of independent "privacy audits", under a settlement of accusations that it has repeatedly misled its users over how it will use their personal data. The Federal Trade Commission, which has used the threat of legal action to extract similar agreements from Google and Twitter already this year, is not waiting for Congress to pass any of the proposed privacy protection legislation, which looks like it might be frozen in the middle of a lobbyists' firefight for years to come.

Under the terms of the deal, as reported yesterday, Facebook will have to get explicit permission from its users before it changes their privacy settings to share more personal information. In other words, no more changing the default settings and putting the onus on us to opt out. The social network has been moving in this direction, and it deserves plaudits for having made its privacy settings simpler and more customisable at the same time – a difficult trick.

But oversight is to be welcomed, too, because there is a tension between the commercial imperative (the more Facebook gets us to share, the more money it can make from selling access to us to advertisers) and users' interests. That tension will only get more difficult after its flotation next year, when shareholders will demand it squeezes more advertising dollars from us.

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