We’ve all heard someone use the phrase “making a federal case out of” something. Often it’s used when people overreact–as in stop making a federal case out of this! And that’s the reaction we should have to the complaint filed by EPIC, Center for Digital Democracy, and others with the FTC. Because they have literally made a federal consumer protection case out of what should be a a customer relations issue between Facebook and its users.
Facebook’s users are quick and vocal about Facebook’s privacy practices. And Facebook has been quick to respond. The Facebook blog on privacy highlights all its recent undertakings to respond to privacy concerns, including the Facebook Site Governance page, the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, an open letter and other blog posts from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. There’s even Facebook Principles that highlight the site’s mission. How many other companies have been so transparent and responsive?
Indeed, you could say that Facebook has been the gold standard of responding to consumers. In this most recent change to privacy settings, users were prompted to revisit their privacy settings. Facebook made some recommended changes based on where it sees its service going. Users (like me) could change these if they wanted.
And change is what the Internet and new web services are all about. Forcing Facebook or any other online site to perpetually maintain original settings prevents new and innovative business models and services (just ask Microsoft about how backward compatibility makes Windows innovation so difficult). Web 2.0 services like Facebook have to experiment with the ways that users publish and share information. If these sites go too far, their customers will leave–which is the best check on privacy compared to any law or regulation.
So that’s why I’m disappointed why these privacy groups are complaining to the FTC. There’s a high bar of specificity for FTC action, so it would have been far better to petition the Facebook community and let them unleash whatever fury they have. But my hunch is that these complaining groups don’t think that the FTC will actually do anything here. After all, making a federal case of actions by high visibility companies makes for a good publicity opportunity even if there’s no sound legal case.
Unfortunately–now that it’s a federal case–customer relations is now confused with consumer protection.